This article explores, from historiographical and archival perspectives, the tumultuous trajectory of Attack on a China Mission (1900) by James Williamson. Seen by traditional historians as a precursor to cross‐cutting, for several years the film existed only in the form of a sales catalogue description. No copies of it seemed to exist in the archives. The discovery of two copies in 1950 and 1985 raised many questions among historians, since neither copy matched the alternating editing structure described in the catalogue. This article will examine the historical relevance of these two copies, as well as the ‘reconstructed’ version now available at the National Film and Television Archive in London. The obvious differences between each of these versions, as well as the changes that were made to them, affirm the importance historians and archivists should grant to the integrity of film artefacts. The modifications also display a relatively classical conception of film that is out of place in the context of early cinema.