The 1927 feature, titled Upstream, tells the story of a romance between a Shakespearean actor and a girl from a knife-throwing act, and was previously thought to have been lost. Only 15 per cent of Ford's early works are believed to have survived into the present day.
The movie was released eight years before Ford won his first Academy Award for The Informer - he went on to land four coveted Best Director trophies, including prizes for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.
The collection, discovered in a remote storage vault deep in New Zealand's movie archives, also includes 1923 film Maytime starring a young Clara Bow, and Won in a Closet, directed by and starring Mabel Normand.
Executives at the New Zealand Film Archive have struck a deal with America's National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and several other organisations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), to have the reels returned to the U.S. for preservation, according to Variety.com.
The NFPF has called the collection "a time capsule of American film production in the 1910s and 1920s", while Jamie Lean, of the New Zealand Film Archive, adds, "We hope that our example will encourage other international partners who have safeguarded 'lost' American films for decades to share their long-unseen treasures with the world community."