One of the early films of silent film star Clara Bow, shown in this 1930s picture, is among a cache of 1920s films found in New Zealand. ((Associated Press))

A cache of 75 rare U.S. silent films, including 1927's Upstream directed by John Ford, has been discovered in a New Zealand archive.

The films were discovered in a vault in the New Zealand Film Archive last year, during a visit by American film preservationist Brian Meacham.

New Zealand has made arrangements to donate the films to the U.S. National Film Preservation Foundation.

All copies of Upstream by Ford, the legendary director who went on to direct talkies such as Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath,  were believed to have been lost.

Ford directed dozens of silent films in the early days of Hollywood movie-making, but many of them have been lost.

The films were sent to New Zealand for viewing after they had finished their commercial run in the U.S. and it was thought it would be too expensive to return them, archivists said.

"New Zealand and Australia were the end of line from Hollywood," Meacham said.

"They end up being home to fabulous collections that through benign neglect can survive for years and years."

Among the other movies found are the earliest surviving film by comic actor and director Mabel Normand, and a period drama starring 1920s screen icon Clara Bow.  

Some of the films are in advanced nitrate decay and some are badly shrunken, said Annette Melville of the U.S. film preservation group.

New Zealand is making digital copies of some of the most significant films and they will be shipped to the U.S. in steel barrels to ensure they are not further damaged, she said.

Melville said about one-third of the films have arrived in the U.S. and restoration efforts have begun on four of them.

Copies of the films are to be made available for viewing in New Zealand after preservation work is completed.

Steve Russell of the New Zealand Film Archive said the archive does not own the recovered movies — they were donated by private donors and collectors who have agreed to the preservation work.

With files from The Associated Press