The British director was 24 when he made the 1923 silent film, The White Shadow.
The three reels were found among some unidentified American nitrate prints, which were left at the New Zealand Film Archive in 1989.
David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, called the find “one of the most significant developments in memory”.
“These first three reels offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape,” he added.
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