Saturday, 8 November 2014

Give peace a chance… High Treason (1929)

Having watched Mathew Sweet’s Silent Britain documentary as well as the British episode of Brownlow and Gill’s Cinema Europe, I’ve been on the look out for more home-grown films like Nell Gwyn that support the idea that there was more to UK film production than quota quickies and the worthy yet dull efforts so derided by contemporary reviewers in the self-referential pages of Close Up.

Mere hundreds survive of the thousands of British silents made and it is difficult to compare what remains with the better archived materials from Germany, France, Scandinavia and Hollywood.  But, there is one film from 1918 that points to our potential with drama – albeit docu-drama – and that is Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George – which was suppressed by the government at the time. Over a decade later the director, undoubtedly one of this country’s great film makers (silent and other-wise), turned his hand to science fiction and some prescient pacifism.

London and New York in the 1950 of 1929...
High Treason is an intriguing prospect made on the cusp of the talkie era and at a time when most of the best domestic output was achieved following the introduction of the quota system and the absorption of expressionism and other European techniques.

Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing, who also co-scripted with one L'Estrange Fawcett, the film is clearly influenced by Metropolis and whilst Elvey can’t match Lang’s vision or budget there is one sequence which is as good as almost anything in the German film…

It’s the near future of 1950 and the Federated States of Europe is at loggerheads with a union of the Atlantic States.  Dark forces are at work trying to ramp up the tensions and push the two sides toward World War Two – arms manufacturers need more war and there’s no profit in pacifism.

A shoot out at the American/Canadian border increases tensions and as the two governments argue over how to respond we see the future London – quaint skyscrapers dwarfing the Houses of Parliament as flying ships criss-cross the capital. One of the largest buildings houses The Peace League, a global organisation aiming the stop the military-industrial complex from destroying themselves. The Peace League is member-driven and in their vast central hall of operations we see the ever-growing count of converts approaches 25 million – the peace is with them.

Benita Hume and Humberston Wright
The human heart of this global dichotomy is represented by two families:  European President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) and his son, air force commander Michael (Jameson Thomas), the head of the Peace League, Dr Seymour (Humberston Wright) and his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume).  They are intimately connected, with Evelyn in a relationship with Michael even though father disapproves: both are young enough to believe that the worst won’t happen but their fathers know better…

Jameson Thomas vid-skypes Benita Hulme or something like that...
The agent provocateurs listen in on an Atlantic States cabinet meeting as one of the delegates describes the potential devastation of an aerial assault on New York: the skyscrapers levelled by high-powered bombs and the people gassed in their thousands. This was Pemberton Billing’s specialist subject – the role of aeroplanes in future military conflict. He was an air-war visionary albeit one with some strange beliefs, including the idea that German homosexual spies were out to undermine British manhood in the First World War…. anders als die andern indeed.

The Channel Tunnel
The agents decide one last spectacular is needed to push the two sides to war and set about blowing up the Channel Tunnel (yes, that’s one prediction they got right… not so sure about the extended European Union…). Their murderous operation takes place as the innocent passengers dine in luxury, hanging their small dogs up in silken bags on special hooks… a horrible juxtaposition.

Meanwhile Michael is taking Evelyn out nightclubbing and endures a stilted few minutes with her disapproving father whilst she readies herself using hi-tech bathing equipment: the longest walk-through shower in cinema history… Wet rooms haven’t quite played out this way although I like the extension of the hair-dryer principle.

The club of the future doesn’t feature a live band but a single MC playing synthesised sounds; as if you could ever replace live music with recorded sound… the couple dance almost robotically as Elvey's camera follows them round this strange old-new room.

Just as the party is in full swing events are halted by an announcement of the Channel Tunnel atrocity: the President has ordered full mobilisation and war seems certain. Evelyn briefly tries to address the revenge-hungry hoards but she is shouted down and Michael goes off to get his uniform.

Evelyn addresses the women conscripts
As the population turns up for conscription the film’s great set piece takes place as Evelyn leads a large group of women conscripts against Michael and his black-suited guards. This section features hundreds of extras all perfectly choreographed by Elvey as the white and black lines flow in close quarters. The sheer weight on white threatens to overwhelm the black until Michael orders the men to unsheathe their weapons. But even with guns pointed at them Evelyn urges her peace troop on assured that “they won’t dare shoot women…”

Michael and his guards
The face-off is paused as one of the ever-present government broadcast video screens reveals that the President will make a televised proclamation at midnight. At his cabinet office Dr Seymour arrives to make a final plea it seems that nothing can prevent world war…

Dr Seymour and the President: who will speak out for peace?
No spoilers… High Treason manages to ramp up the tension very well for the closing section even though it has a double barrier to overcome not just its own vintage but also a view of the things to come firmly rooted in late twenties technology. That's the curse of science fantasy - the future’s never what it used to be when watched after the event. Inevitably most predictions are wrong and a few are almost right: the use of of almost instant telecommunication is pretty spot on and whilst it enables narrative propulsion it also shows how quickly the World and its fortunes can turn.

The walk-through shower... by now every home should have one
Elevy anchors the grand events in his characters and not just the four main players. There are numerous, very British, cameos injecting light relief into what could be a portentous story whilst the impact of violence is shown in human detail after every whiz and bang from the imagined attack on New York to the bombing of the train and the League's HQ.

The human cost of destruction
Jameson Thomas makes for a fine airman, stiff upper lip adorned by an impeccable moustache and there is genuine chemistry with Benita Hume’s proto-feminist flapper, who's sense of style is more than patched by her passion for peace and the conviction that women must lead the way. The performances have to fit with the grandiose settings and ultimately High Treason is a fable just like Metropolis with a rather mixed message about pacifism and the ultimate resort to violence which is not as inconsistent as it might seem.

High Treason doesn’t rank with Elvey’s magnificent Hindle Wakes or Lloyd George but it certainly has its moments and is an entertaining ride – unless, that is, you’re going through the Channel Tunnel.

It was also made as a sound film in which the repeatedly-sung Peace Song might have more impact and there’s a definitely transitional feel to the narrative with some lengthy titles. I’d also really like to hear that one man synthetic band in the night club! Raymond Massey also pops up arguing for peace in government meetings: there would be more of him to come.

Watch the film now on the BFI Player!
High Treason is now available for streaming on the BFI Player… and it proves that, whilst we didn’t have German budgets we did have ideas and a style all of our own.

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