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By Phil Hall | August 15, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 246: “Sentinels of Silence” (1971 Oscar-winning short documentary).

LAST SEEN: It is available for unauthorized download on several online sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Released on VHS video in 1990.


CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, but it doesn’t appear to be likely in the near future.

Unless you are a foaming-at-the-mouth Academy Award trivia buff, there is an excellent chance you never heard of the 1971 film “Sentinels of Silence.” That production is the answer to a pair of my favorite Oscar quiz questions: (1) what is the only film to win both the Best Documentary Short Subject and Best Live Action Short Subject, and (2) what was the first Mexican production to win an Oscar?

Now that we have those factoids out of the way, we can concentrate on “Sentinels of Silence” itself. While the film’s Oscar pedigree helped bring this title to my attention, its extraordinary artistic content maintained my attention and won my awe.

The eponymous sentinels are the ruins of the Mesoamerican temples, pyramids and courtyards that stretch across Mexico. Long before those wacky conquistadors brought their unique brand of knockabout to the New World, the Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and other nations of the region enjoyed complex civilizations where great feats of architecture, science, mathematics, arts and theology were celebrated. Today, however, all that remains of those cultures is the architecture – extraordinary pyramids, temples, towers and palaces in various degrees of wreckage and ruin.

“Sentinels of Silence” opens with a Leni Riefenstahl-worthy shot of the sun as seen from above the clouds. The soundtrack begins to fill with a rich, stirring symphonic score created by Mariano Moreno as the camera descends through the clouds across the Mexican landscape. The film, for most of its 18 minute running time, is a visually electrifying helicopter journey around the ancient ruins. Occasionally, the camera comes in for a sold close-up shot of the various petroglyphs and hieroglyphs left behind by the long-vanished kingdoms. But on the whole, the visions of ancient greatness are seen from the distance.

In the course of the film, the viewer gets brief glimpses of the glories found at Teotihuacan, Monte Alban, Mitla, Tulum, Palenque, Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Orson Welles provides the narration here, offering brief histories of the various sites and the people who created them. The emphasis is on “brief” because, as Welles notes, very little data is available to determine the exact information surrounding each site. (Or at least in 1971 there wasn’t much data – obviously, more is known today.) Welles points out that Western scholars were unable for many years to comprehend that the indigenous peoples of Mexico were capable of creating such monumental structures. Even as late as the 19th century, scholars were speculating that these structures were the works of Greeks, Romans, Israelites or even Chinese who somehow found their way into Mexico – native people, it was felt, were just too dumb to create something that clever.

If there is a problem with “Sentinels of Silence,” it comes in being just 18 minutes in length. One wishes more time could be given to exploring the depth and scope of the various sites. But even at a relatively short length, the film provides a grand vision of what remains of the pre-Spanish Mexican heritage. The film is beautifully framed, offering a magnificent overview of an elusive past. Kudos were in order for Mexican director Robert Amram and cinematographers Jim Freeman (later a co-founder of IMAX) and Gustavo Olguin for their expertise in framing this film with such skill and finesse.

Paramount Pictures picked up the theatrical rights to “Sentinels of Silence,” which was no mean feat since the market for short films was pretty much nonexistent in 1971. Besides Orson Welles as the English narrator, Paramount brought in Ricardo Montalban to narrate the Spanish-language release.

And then came the Oscars. While “Sentinels of Silence” was not the first film to be nominated in both the Short Documentary and Short Live Action categories, it was the first to win both categories. It created history, of course, but it also created ill will. Almost immediately, the Academy changed the rules of the short film categories to bar non-fiction films from competing against narrative offerings in the Short Subject Live Action category. Thus, we will never see another film repeat the “Sentinels of Silence” double play.

“Sentinels of Silence” was released on VHS video in 1990 by a company called ALTI Publishing (Paramount apparently didn’t bother to secure home entertainment rights). The film has also been a staple of non-theatrical libraries in the U.S., and the Mexican government has been known to screen it at their embassies around the world as an example of the nation’s cultural history. To date, though, there has been no commercial DVD release.

But “Sentinels of Silence” can be easily found via bootleg online distribution. A simple Google search brings up a number of sites that offer the film for quicky, easy and wholly unauthorized downloads. Unless you can secure a copy of the out-of-print VHS video or you get invited to a Mexican embassy event, this is the only way you can view the film.

“Sentinels of Silence” deserves to be more than a trivia question – it deserves to be seen and appreciated again. This film is truly marvelous and deserving of both of its Oscars.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure

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  1. Prof. Rosell Fernandez says:

    Not sure how I got here…must be that darn alzheimer’s again..but s a cultural anthropologist, I remember as a little girl attempting to read Chichen Itza circa 1960. Of course I never could understand it.. besides I was a little girl from Cuba-But your review is wonderful ..hmmm how did I get here?.. Oh now I remember I was reading Forbes list of billionaires and Arango from Mexico underwrote the film..whew…Going to watch it..

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