ARMORED KNIGHTS DO BLOODY battle, a kingdom is lost, a matinee idol makes a career breakthrough. Braveheart? No, Richard III, the 1912 screen version starring Frederick Warde and a cast of hundreds. Made for a then-princely $30,000, the silent classic was long given up for lost.

Except, it turned out, by William Buffum, a onetime projectionist from Portland, Ore., who had been showing it to family and friends for 35 years. In February, Buffum, 78, donated his print of the movie—the oldest surviving American feature film—to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Margaret, 72, had sold their home but hadn't previously found a taker for Buffum's collection of silent movies. "I'd showed them many, many times," he says. "Nobody wanted them."

Now somebody does. For film buffs, finding the mint-condition print is like stumbling on a Rembrandt. "American movies have always set the standard," says Jean Picker Firstenberg, director of the Institute. "It's amazing to see how early the standard was set." The movie was billed at the time as the "Sensation of the Century." It gave Warde, a 62-year-old Shakespearean who had toured with the great Edwin Booth, a new career in movies.

Buffum's own career in movies began in the 1920s when, using a hand-cranked projector and charging a nickel, he put on shows for other kids. Later he became a projectionist and a collector. He got the 55-minute print in a trade about 1960. On Oct. 29, when Richard III premieres in Los Angeles, he and Margaret will be there. "I can't believe it," says Margaret. "We thought it was just an old movie."