This 1929 film was Britain’s attempt to create its own Metropolis. The stunning art deco visuals are counteracted by a clumsy and overtly naive script. Maurice Elvey’s direction is fluid and competent, but the actors are stuck with paper-thin characters who lack motivation. Modern viewers of this pacifist yarn set in 1940 will marvel at the accurate predictions of things like TV and Skype. 5/10
High Treason. 1929, UK. Directed by Maurice Elvey. Written by L’Estrange Fawcett. Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing. Starring: Benita Hume, Basil Gill, Humberston Wright, Jameson Thomas. IMDb score: 6.3. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
Generally dismissed a “curio”, this British 1929 sci-fi production perhaps deserves greater recognition, not only because it has some clear artistic merits, but because it’s one of the few pre-1950s SF productions that was made on a substantial budget. Furthermore, it’s one of the very earliest sound films made in Britain, coming at the heels of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Its reputation has been partly hampered because until recently, it’s been very hard to access the film. To this day no sound version of the film has been released for home viewing, other than through the British Film Institute’s web service BFI Player, which is not available outside Britain. The film was made made in two versions, one with sound and another silent version, which is the one I’ll be looking at here, and which is generally considered to be the better of the two.
High Treason was released two years after Fritz Lang’s futuristic epic Metropolis (1927, review), and both its plot and visuals are highly inspired by the German film, even if its central idea is taken from a stage play written by Noel Pemberton Billing. It was one in a line of extremely costly futuristic epics released in the mid-to-late twenties and early thirties that, when they failed to recover their costs, put the international movie industry off the idea of big-budget science fiction films for nearly two decades, indeed even longer than that, depending on how you define “big-budget”.
The film is set in the highly futuristic world of 1940 (although some silent prints have pushed the date forward to 1950), in which the globe is divided between the “Empire of the Atlantic States”, which comprises of USA, South America and the countries of South-East Asia, as well as the “United States of Europe”, which is basically everywhere else. Except, for some reason the Soviet Union — its status remains ambiguous to the audience, as a map clearly indicates that it doesn’t belong to either of the blocs, and the movie completely ignores its existence, even though the premise is nothing less than the looming threat of WWII.
In the film the prohibition era in America extends to 1940 and the tension is initially caused by bootleggers crossing the borders between territories. One such incident leads to a shoot-out between border guards in which both sides suffer casualties. War looks likely, but the powerful pacifist Peace League intervenes. Meanwhile, we learn that the tension is in fact carefully orchestrated by a sinister group of arms manufacturers and war agitators, that have seen their profits plummet during the last twenty years of peace. Their final, most sinister act, is the blow up a rail tunnel under the English Channel, with hundreds of casualties. This act is blamed on the Atlantic States, and causes the war-mongering president of Europe, Stephen Deane (Basil Gill), to seize executive power and order a mass enlistment and mobilisation, including conscription for women.
The lion’s part of the movie takes place in London, where Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), leader of the Peace League, desperately attempts to avert war by speaking in front of the European council in London, but president Deane will not be moved. In response to Europe’s mobilisation, the Atlantic States declare that they are now also preparing for war.
In the midst of all of this, there’s a Romeo and Juliet story carried out between Dr. Seymour’s daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume), also an outspoken and famous pacifist, and the son of the militarist president of Europe, Michael (Jameson Thomas). While Michael harbours no ill will as such toward the Peace League, he sees them mainly as minor nuisance and doesn’t miss a chance to ridicule and belittle Evelyn’s engagement in the cause. Ah, and to make matters even more complicated, Michael isn’t just the son of the president, but also the commander of Europe’s air force, and no less militarist than his father. A good part of the first half of the movie follows the lopsided romance between Michael and Evelyn, including a voyeuristic scene in which we see Evelyn taking a shower in a hyper-modern walk-through shower with hand-held hot-air dryers, and getting dressed in a tight-fitting flapper-inspired outfit for a night on the town. (Michael’s toiletry apparently isn’t as interesting.)
The couple meet up at a dance hall with other upper-class cremes, where they dance a bizarre stop-motion dance to the tunes of an automatic orchestra, operated by a single man on a control panel, sort of like a synthesizer. The floor show, a fencing match between two women, is interrupted by the president’s order of conscription, over a television broadcast, no less.
We now follow the women as they are sent off to conscription, explicitly as they are handed their new highly impractical but visually striking combat uniforms in white, and feminine creatures as they are, they naturally complain about the horrors of war: mainly the fact that they have to wear such ugly garments. Meanwhile, Michael organises the air force, and the pilots prepare to man their planes (yes, they are all men, naturally) as soon as the president gives the final declaration of war.
But suddenly, in a scene ripped straight from Metropolis, Evelyn storms upon a podium in the sea of white-clad women, and gives a passionate speech for peace, rallying the women to block the pilots’ path to the planes – and they all start singing the Peace Song. In a beautifully choreographed and filmed sequence the mass of women in white, with Evelyn at the helm, face off against the black-clad pilots, guns drawn, who are led by Michael. Now Michael must choose to open fire upon the women of Europe, among them his beloved Evelyn, in order to reach his planes and continue his massacre of innocents on the other side of the Atlantic, or to stand down in the face of pacifism, and betray his ideals as a militarist.
Meanwhile, the European council is at an impasse, as it votes with 12 votes for declaration of war and 12 against, thus giving the president the deciding vote, which is naturally for war. But as he suspects widespread protests due to the popularity of the Peace League, he asks the beloved Dr. Seymour to give the country a morale-boosting speech before he makes his public announcement of declaration of war, and invites Seymour to his private office, where his video broadcasting system is located. Seymour, now alone with the president, and with a gun in his pocket, realises that he has one last chance to prevent a devastating war: no declaration can be given if there is no president to give it. But in order to prevent violence, he must first choose to use utmost violence …
High Treason is a problematic film, mainly on the basis of its script. Director Maurice Elvey was one Britain’s most respected filmmakers at the time, and one of very few Brits in the business whose career survived WWI. He, along with a few other directors like Herbert Wilcox and Graham Cutts, made sure that there even was a British film industry during the slump between the outbreak of WWI and 1927, when the famous Cinematograph Films Act was passed. While he didn’t have anywhere near the budget of, say Fritz Lang, while working on High Treason, Elvey does dish out a couple of highly dramatic set-pieces like the flooding the the canal tunnel, as well as many very well realised miniature and model shots. As compared to many other early sound films, High Treason seems to suffer remarkably little from the restraints of the new technology, as Elvey maintains a fairly high level of dynamism throughout the picture, and we’re spared awkward moments of actors speaking into flower pots.
The script, on the other hand, is a different beast. Not only are the characters cut-out cardboard pieces with no discernible motivations other than to serve the over-arching plot of the movie, the over-arching plot of the movie is also rather inane. It’s clearly modelled on the sort of symbolic moral play that was fashionable in the late teens and early twenties, but the tone is off for it to work. Epics like the ones Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau created, where characters and story arcs were larger than life, without necessarily having much logic or outspoken motivation behind them, worked because of the operatic scale and gravitas of the films. The characters represented Ideas and not necessarily Humans. And an Idea can’t stop mid-way through and wink at the audience. But High Treason has too light-hearted a tone for half the film for this to work, there’s too many jokes, too much romantic banter for the characters to suddenly become Ideas.
Furthermore, the script engages in some of the sloppiest world-building in cinema history. The film would have us believe, without any explanation, that in the short time span between 1929 and 1940, all the world’s countries have organised neatly into two massive blocks, sans-Soviet, and that from somewhere this odd, pseudo-religious international Peace League would have arisen. No explanation is given as to how all this did happen, nor how this new world actually functions. Neither is there any explanation as to what this Peace League actually is, what actual power it wields, etc. This could have worked, had the film not given us a specific year to focus on, or at least pushed the timeline further into the future — as the French translation actually did, and placed the proceedings in 1995 rather than 1940.
Kudos should be given to scriptwriter L’Estrange Fawcett, though, for many accurate insights into the future. This is one of the first films to accurately depict the TV as a leisure device, as there’s a scene where two men are actually watching a game of women’s volleyball on a TV screen, naturally with some remarks on the curvature of players. Fawcett also depicts wireless video communications, going as far as to anticipate patchy internet connection — even if the video call is still relayed in the old-fashioned way by a lady at a switchboard. He also anticipated the Chunnel between France and Britain, and even at some level the European Union. Of course, he didn’t invent any of these — these were all ideas that had been floating around for decades — but he was one of the first to actually put them in a movie script. Video calls had been around on screen since the days of Georges Méliès, but considering that radio was still a novelty at the time, the accuracy with which Fawcett describes a world saturated with broadcast media is still eerily spot-on. And thankfully, there’s no flying cars, even if there’s an abundance of airplanes hovering the London skies.
Now, the failings of the script are often pinned on playwright Noel Pemberton Billing. While he is partly to blame, the fact is that his 1928 play is very different from the screenplay, even if the film follows his basic themes and convictions. But to get to the bottom of this oddity, let’s rewind a bit and put it into some context.
In 1928 Europe was still dazed and confused, trying to make sense of WWI, and a huge number of films were made that, directly or indirectly, dealt with the trauma and anguish over the war, from Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919) to William Wellman’s Wings (1927). The West was worried about the communists in the East and the East looked with trepidation at the growing power of the US. And everyone cast sideway glances at Germany. But there was also a lot of soul-searching, as the world as a collective tried to come to grips with how it had become embroiled in a catastrophic war, that, in the end, nobody seemed to have wanted, and the unimaginable suffering that had arisen from this war, that with its modern machinery and weapons of mass destruction had created civilian suffering far beyond any war that had hitherto been waged. In this sense, High Treason was one film in a long line of anti-war movies, albeit one of the more naive ones. Especially the role played by aviation in the war cast gloomy forecasts for the future. Nowhere was this more felt than in the UK, a kingdom which had historically lulled itself into a false sense of security, partly due to a strongly held notion of British exceptionalism and superiority, having colonised huge swathes of the known world, but more practically because of its reliance on its famous fleet. As an island surrounded with what was considered the foremost military fleet in the world, the Brits had viewed themselves as uninvadable. That is, until the German zeppelins came with their bombs in WWI. Having relied so heavily on the fleet, Britain lacked an effective air force. This was felt more acutely than most by the right-wing maverick MP, inventor and aviator Noel Pemberton Billing.
Another significant factor in the creation of High Treason was the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, designed to raise the number of British films shown in British cinemas to 25 percent from the lowly 5 percent it was in 1924. While technical pioneers in the field of film, British cinema had never been able to compete internationally with French and Danish, and later German or American film. The Brits were fore-runners in the field of documentaries, but when it came to fiction, British movies tended to be sub-par both technically and artistically, and the British film industry was amateurish as compared to the international giants. Still, up until WWI, British movies had at least been able to compete on the domestic market. But in the years after the war Hollywood rose to dominate international films, and nowhere was this felt more than in Britain, the ideal export country for American English-language films. By the mid-twenties British film industry had more or less come to a complete halt. The Films Act of 1927 was the means to invigorate British film production, by setting quotas for British movie theatres.
One effect of the act were the so-called quota quickies, the British equivalent of what would become known as B-movies in the US. They were often cheap, quickly made and of questionable quality, but they helped launch a new generation of British filmmakers, who were allowed to experiment rather freely within their given financial restraints: filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Michael Powell. The number of production companies multiplied, many of them of the boom-and-bust variety. It also gave British companies the courage and the means to produce bigger and costlier pictures, in an effort to knock a wedge into the overseas American market. One such film was High Treason, a British Metropolis made at a time when nothing like it had yet been produced in the US (the Hollywood attempt, Just Imagine (review), actually came along just a year later).
Now, however, this had nothing to do with Noel Pemberton Billing or his 1928 stage play. Pemberton Billing wasn’t in the movie business, neither was he really in the theatre business. An oddball maverick right-wing politician, inventor, former and publisher, he had been elected to Parliament in 1916, mainly on the strength of his anti-Germanic rhetoric and his rants on sinister conspiracy theories about how German spies were turning the elites of Britain into homosexuals in order to take over the country. Fiercely anti-German, anti-communist and anti-gay, his spouted his rhetoric in his journal Vigilante, which also had a strong antisemitic streak, despite the fact that there’s no evidence that Pemberton Billing himself was an antisemite.
Instead, he wrote a number of articles where he outlined how there was a “Berlin Black Book” where the names of 47 000 British “perverts” (homosexuals) in Britain were inscribed, and that they were being blackmailed by German authorities in order to seduce politicians and other people in high positions in order to give up state secrets. Among those embroiled in a “cult of the clitoris” he accused the wife of the prime minister, as well as the controversial dancer and actress Maud Allan and the executor of the openly gay author Oscar Wilde’s estate. Pemberton Billing explicitly attacked Allan and the Wilde estate, as Allan was at the time giving private shows of Wilde’s play Salome, an erotic performance where she would go on stage in a dress made of of little more than pearls. According to Pemberton Billing and his mistress (who claimed to gave read the Black Book), Allan was a high-ranking member of the Cult of the Clitoris, having previously been stationed in Berlin, and was now luring British men and women into depravity, all while delivering state secrets to the Germans. This led to a libel suit, which in a farcical miscarriage of justice, Pemberton Billing actually won. Pemberton Billing was ousted from Parliament in 1918, then re-elected, but quit of his own volition in 1921, as he couldn’t sit around “while Germans were running the country”. His conspiracy theories were ridiculed in the press, and he made no more serious attempts at entering politics.
Thus, Pemberton Billing was a most unlikely candidate to write a pacifist play about European unity. That this came to pass is, however, just in keeping with the odd life of Noel Pemberton Billing.
According to film scholar Lucie Dutton, the impulse to write the play came from a speech that the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, held in the Royal Albert Hall on Armistice Night in November 1927. Pemberton Billing wasn’t present, but he later listened to the speech, which was made available on phonograph records. In the speech, the Prince said:
“If we are to save ourselves and those that come after us from a renewal in an even more frightful form of all that we suffered in the Great War, we must by our every action, in our everyday conversation, and even in our very thoughts seek peace […] If we have a duty to our dead, we have also a duty to the living.”
Something in this pacifist speech seems to have roused Pemberton Billing into a writing frenzy, as if he had received an epiphany — according to Dutton, he sat down by his typewriter and churned out the complete manuscript for his play in a single 13-hour sitting.
According to John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella’s book Down from the Attic: Rare Thrillers of the Silent Era through the 1950s the film maintained only the most bare-bones basics of the play: “Set ‘sometime in the future’, the film has nothing whatsoever futuristic about it, the notation apart: There is no mention of a Channel Tunnel, advanced gadgetry, outlandish fashions, or anything actually smacking of science fiction. The film’s big scenes — the sabotage of the Channel Tunnel, the bombing of the Peace League, the standoff between the female draftees and the airmen — are not even hinted at in the play: instead, the audience is subjected to endless debates about war and peace, and an interminable trial sequence in Act Three. […] In the play, Dr. Seymour is a bishop — and his final confrontation — with Britain’s bellicose prime minister — happens offstage.”
The film is sometimes accused of being antisemitic; and it is easy to view the film through the lens of the late twenties and pin down the war profiteering secret organisation responsible for the war as a Jewish conspiracy. The notion is strengthened by the fact that Pemberton Billing’s magazine Vigilante would often post antisemitic articles. But in fact, this shady cabal doesn’t even exist in the original play, and there’s nothing in the film that hints at them being Jewish. In the play, it is a newspaper tycoon that stirs up a war frenzy in Britain, and his character is just a very minor one in the film. And despite allowing antisemitic material to be published in his magazine, Pemberton Billing’s beef was never with the Jews, it was with Germans and homosexuals. In the sound version of the film, however, the plotters are heard talking with French and Russian accents, according to Soister and Nicolella.
According to film scholar Lucie Dutton, the first two acts in the play take place — entirely — in 10 Downing Street, where we can surmise that the “endless debates about war and peace” take place, and where the pacifist bishop finally confronts the war-mongering prime minister. The character Stephen Deane is a barrister defending the bishop in the third and final act of the play, and here we also meet the only female character of the play, as the bishop’s daughter perjures herself in an attempt to save her father.
The play received rotten reviews from most of the press, which called it “remarkably crude” and “boring”, even if some gave it a bit of slack by commenting that at least Pemberton Billing tried out some novel ideas. The main moral problem of both the play and the film is whether one act of violence can be justified if it prevents an even worse fate. For most of the film’s running time, both sides in the conflict are mobilising in order to be ready to strike before the other, to, in a sense, try to end war in its infancy with a decisive, if devastating blow. Dr. Seymour, on the other hand, spends most of the film trying to prevent such action. The film muddles the concept compared to the play by bringing in the war profiteering cabal, who actually cause a tremendous amount of damage, basically driving the two parts into war against their will. This takes away some of the poignancy of the moral debate, as it is of greater interest to the Peace League to expose the arms manufacturing terrorists than to have a discussion on pacifism. Some have claimed that Dr. Seymour betrays his pacifist ideals by even contemplating to harm the president of Europe, but this betrays a rather crude understanding of pacifism. All pacifism isn’t absolute pacifism, and there are strains, such as conditional utilitarian pacifism, which might well condone the actions of Dr. Seymour, if a lesser evil outweighs the greater one.
The play was a disaster. It ran for only 13 days in London before Pemberton Billing shut it down himself. He had produced it on his own dime, and as audiences failed to show up, he was losing money fast. The play did have a couple of runs in the provinces, however. As a curiosity one can mention that one of the actors in the cast was James Whale, who just a couple of years later would rise to international fame in Hollywood after directing Frankenstein (1931), and went on to direct a number of other well-renowned horror and science fiction films. For all friends of Universal horror movies, it was a stroke of luck that High Treason was such an unpopular play, since it freed up Whale to direct the WWI play Journey’s End in 1928, the play which brought him to the US in the first place.
Neither Soister, Nicolella nor Dutton are able to give a definitive answer as to why Elvey and Fawcett chose High Treason, of all stories, in order to create a British Metropolis. But Dutton speculates: “Fawcett’s 1932 book Writing for the Films gives us some clues about why High Treason was chosen. He wrote that ‘It is usually disastrous to use more than a small amount of the original material. The theme and the spirit should be retained and the story reconstructed in film style round a few incidents – the fewer the better.’ High Treason is an excellent example of this: Elvey and Fawcett took a courtroom drama and turned it into a modernist science fiction fable.”
Dutton goes on: “Elvey’s own experience of the Great War seems to be played out in High Treason. Elvey did not serve in the trenches in France but instead had the grim task of dealing with bombing and its aftermath at home. During 1916, he served in the Middlesex Voluntary Aid Association, achieving the rank of Divisional Commander, before being discharged due to illness. In September 1916, he was injured whilst on duty during a Zeppelin raid and was forced to refrain from work for six months, following an operation. Could this experience have influenced the most powerful scenes in High Treason: the terrorist attack on the Channel Tunnel and the aftermath of bombing raids Elvey’s own Zeppelin Nights must have informed how he treated those scenes.”
If the idea was indeed to make a British Metropolis, then a much more likely work to adapt would have been H.G. Wells’ 1910 novel Things to Come, set in a London 200 years in the future. But Things to Come is a rather daunting novel, full of social philosophy and complex political satire, which may indeed have seemed like too much of a challenge to Fawcett, who had only written a single screenplay before High Treason. Rather, Fawcett was a respected film scholar and writer about film, which is why Elvey chose him for the job. Soister and Niconella ruminate: “[Fawcett] may have viewed High Treason as a sober, restrained and veddy antidote to the Teutonic excesses of Fritz Lang’s film”.
What clearly differentiates Metropolis from High Treason is the latter’s complete lack of class commentary. We don’t even get a glimpse of the working class, nor how this new future affects the poor. The picture of future society is a majestic, clean and prosperous upper class view — indeed all depictions of future London have a bird’s eye view, and we’re never taken down to street level. As soon as focus shifts from the impressive miniature skylines, we’re taken indoors, to an office, a parliament building, a night club or a lavish apartment. All central characters are definitely upper class. The script is also void of any intelligent political or social commentary, with the exception of war and war profiteering.
The direction, cinematography and editing is, for the most part, good or excellent. Maurice Elvey doesn’t allow the camera work to become static or the performances stiff because of the addition of sound. Andrew Mazzei’s miniature work is impressive, if obviously miniaturey, and Philippo Guidobaldi’s special effects, such as the bombing of the Peace League building, work very well. The most impressive scene of the film is the flooding of the Chunnel, in which Elvey, in a throwback to Metropolis once again, actually flooded the stage at Lime Grove Studios, flushing away the actors and even camera men. The aftermath of the bombings are shown in grim detail, with Elvey drawing on his own experiences from the war. The influence from Metropolis is further obvious in the expressionistic lighting and the choreographed scenes of conscripts, as well as the symbolic standoff between the aviators and the female draftees. The latter is a beautifully shot scene, with Benita Hume doing her best imitation of Metropolis star Brigitte Helm as charismatic leader of the people. The juxtaposition between close-ups of horrified faces and bombed buildings in the action sequences shows a similarity with Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and the Soviet montage theory (more on this later). This is used sparingly, but effectively in the film.
However, neither the press nor the audience were especially impressed with the film. While the visuals and the sound work got a lot of praise, most reviewers had a hard time swallowing the illogical world-building and the naive script. The Motion Picture News wrote that “Audiences are going to refuse to believe that so many changes could be wrought in ten years”. The New York Times praised the film’s sound work as being superior to that being done in Hollywood, but in a scathing review stated that the premise of the film “doesn’t wash water”. Like Variety, the NY Times feels that the film is set in too near a future to be believable. This, of course, must have occurred to to both Fawcett and Elvey, but their problem was that they were making comments on issues that were pertinent to their present-day situation and the looming fear of WWII. While few of their ideas were actually far-fetched — most of them are a reality today: TV, video calls, music machines, the UN, women in the military, air warfare, etc — the film should have been set 75 years in the future and not ten or even twenty. But apparently Fawcett didn’t feel he could write a script that commented on present-day issues without placing the story close enough to the present to be pertinent. They could have just done away with the futuristic trappings, but that would have negated the point of the film, which was to make a British Metropolis.
But not even this was the main problem for the NY Times’ London film correspondent: “Then the two stories which go to make up the plot of “High Treason” are, in their respective fashions, both so fantastic and far-fetched that there is no possibility of illusion being created in the mind of the audience to whose eyes and ears appeal is made.”, the paper wrote, and continued: “This story is really such a farrago of nonsense that one is sorry Maurice Elvey could not find better material to his expert hand.”
British reviewers weren’t necessarily kinder, with Oswell Blakeston writing for Close Up: “We could go through this picture giving a documentation of the absurdities … but we do not think High Treason is worth the space”.
But bad press wasn’t High Treason’s only problem in trying to promote British cinema in the US. It also caught the eye of the censors. For some, the implied nudity of Benita Hume showering — even behind almost opaque frosted glass — was too much, and the scene had to be cut in some states. The film fared even worse in New York and Pennsylvania, where it was outright banned. In her always insightful blog Ferdy on Films Marilyn Ferdinand rightly points out that Elvey seems to linger perhaps a tad too long for comfort on the female actors’ bare legs revealing cocktail dresses: “While there is no actual nudity in this or any other scene, as there is in Metropolis, there were enough long takes of women in their silk undies that the film was actually banned in New York.” However, I’ll have to correct Ferdy here, as the fact is that it wasn’t the implied nudity that got High Treason banned in New York, but its political content. The idea of showing the murder of a president by a peace activist in a positive light reeked to the high heavens of subversive political elements. The New York Board of Censors called the film “inhuman” and “incitement to crime”. It didn’t help that the film came in the middle of a premature red scare moment, as the New York Board of Censors were rattled by a sudden influx of a number of “-ism movies” from Russia. However, the distributor took the New York problems in stride, and used it in their marketing. The film fared better on the West Coast, but still wasn’t quite the smash hit that the production company British Gaumont had hoped for.
The film was more or less forgotten after its first run, and for decades, the sound version was believed to have been completely lost. The British Film Institure held a copy of it, but the sound elements had totally deteriorated. However, according to Charlie Jane Anders at io9, in the early noughties, a film collector in the state of Washington donated a stash of old film cans, many of them mislabelled, to the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, who were stunned to discover a surprisingly good print of the American edit of the sound version of High Treason. Kevin Tripp at the Anchorage Film Festival writes that after discovering this rare gem, AMIPA had the lavender grain print shipped directly to the Library of Congress, who after some years of restoration and preservation work were able to produce a copy for cinema screening. The first screening of the sound version of High Treason in over 80 years was arranged by the British Film Institute in 2014, and in 2015 the movie was shown at a few film festivals in the US. The film is digitised and by all accounts in the public domain, but sadly the BFI has only released the film through its own BFI player, which is only available in Britain. The silent version is available on DVD and YouTube.
The acting in the silent version helps keep things afloat — no matter the qualities of the rest of the film, the acting in British movies is seldom at fault. Jameson Thomas is well cut out for the leading man, adopting a care-free swashbuckler attitude in the vein of Douglas Fairbanks. Thomas was a respected leading man in a number of films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s early effort The Farmer’s Wife (1928), the classic Piccadilly (1929), opposite Hollywood star Anna May Wong and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) opposite Claudette Colbert. In the early thirties Thomas relocated to Hollywood, where he had a decent career, mostly in small or supporting roles. He turns up as an uncredited hospital doctor in James Whale’s sci-fi classic The Invisible Man (1933, review).
Humberston Wright possesses enough charisma to pull off the melodramatic role of Dr. Seymour — aged here with a dramatic white wig. At times he reminds me of Ernest Thesiger, for some reason. Perhaps it’s the cleaver. Wright also appeared in the US film serial Detective Lloyd (1932), filmed in London, which had a few sci-fi elements.
Basil Gill is a bit over the top in his theatrical mannerisms as the bellicose president of Europe, all mad glares and frowns, however, it’s all in keeping with the script. Gill was a respected Shakespearean actor, who became something of a matinee idol because of his romantic leads in modern plays in the early 20th century. This also led to him being cast for similar roles in early UK films between 1916 and 1920. High Treason marked his comeback to the screen, and he appeared in a few dozen more movies in the sound era, sometimes even in lead roles, but mostly as a character actor in small, but memorable supporting parts. Gill was a close friend of superstar Charles Laughton, and they appeared together in films like Alexander Korda’s ambitious biopic Rembrandt (1936), Josef von Sternberg’s I, Claudius (1937), and the star-studded St. Martin’s Lane, with Laughton, Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison in the leads. He appeared as Pontius Pilate in Maurice Elvey’s The Wandering Jew (1933), starring Conrad Veidt, and can also be seen in King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938) with Robert Donat and Knight Without an Armour (1939), with Donat and Marlene Dietrich.
Best known of the actors is probably Benita Hume, who is refreshing in her role, doing her best flapper. Hume’s first heyday was in the late twenties and early thirties, when she was often cast as leading lady. A seasoned stage actress, she played leads in a number of now rather obscure films, the best known of which is perhaps the reporter comedy Clear All Wires (1933), starring Lee Tracy. In 1934 she had a substantial role in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In the previous year she had made the move to Hollywood, where she married British film star Ronald Colman, leading man in a number of classic films, who would go on to receive and three Oscar nominations and one win for best male actor.
In the States Hume was relegated to the status of “the other woman” and never quite achieved stardom, but continued to act in a number of decent films, like some of the more forgettable movies of megastars like Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, William Powell and Joan Crawford. One fun little detail is that in 1936 Hume played Jane’s cousin in the third MGM instalment of the Tarzan films, Tarzan Escapes, opposite Johnny Weissmüller and Maureen O’Sullivan. She retired from the screen in 1938, but found new fame on radio and television in the fifties, when she and her husband would regularly be guest stars in the legendary comedy show The Jack Benny Program, both the radio and TV version. Colman and Hume would play Benny’s neighbours. In 1954 the couple got their own TV show, The Halls of Ivy, which ran for one season, or 38 episodes.
After Colman’s death in 1958, she married another Oscar winner, George Sanders. I’m not going to list all the prestigious A-listers he was in, I’m just going to remind everyone that he was the original Mr. Freeze in the sixties Batman TV show. He also appeared in a number of sci-fi films from the thirties to the seventies. These include an uncredited role as a pilot in Britain’s final attempt at a sci-fi epic of Metropolis scale, Alexander Korda’s, William Cameron Menzies’ and H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936, review), the second lead in Byron Haskin’s Technicolor Jules Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon (1958), the lead role in the classic Village of the Damned (1960) as well as in the not so classic The Body Stealers (1969). Incidentally, Ronald Colman was originally cast in Village of the Damned, but after his passing Sanders took over the role. Some might remember him as the original Simon Templar or The Saint, in a number of films in the thirties and forties, before the Roger Moore TV show. Or the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). Or for his role as Benjamin Ballon in the original Inspector Clouseau film A Shot in the Dark (1967). And no, I’m not going to list all the Oscar-winning films he appeared in. Just this: Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Lang, Rosselini, DeMille, Huston, etc.
The above named were the only four credited actors of the movie, but it does contain a couple of other people who are interesting from a science fiction point of view. The one that’s frequently mentioned is later Oscar nominee Raymond Massey, who appears as a member the Federated States Council. Massey would later go on to play the lead role in the above mentioned sci-fi epic Things to Come, and had guest spots in the sci-fi/horror TV shows Lights Out (review) in the fifties and Night Gallery in the seventies.
This was the first film experience for actress and later novelist Rene Ray, who in 1956 wrote the script for the TV mini-series The Strange World of Planet X, following the enormous success of the groundbreaking BBC shows The Quatermass Experiment (1953, review) and Quatermass 2 (1955). The story follows a scientist experimenting with magnetic fields, causing freak storms, attracts UFOs and turns insects into giant flesh-eating monsters. The series was novelised by Ray, and in turn turned into a feature film with the same name in 1958, released in the US under the title The Cosmic Monster.
So, what’s the verdict?
In truth I think I liked this film more than I perhaps would like to admit. The direction is solid, the production values are very good — not as impressive as Metropolis, but nevertheless quite impressive. Even if the miniatures do look very much like miniatures. But the big set pieces, like the flooding of the Chunnel, are harrowing, and it’s clear that Elvey has put a lot of energy into portraying the human cost of war. While many of the more stunning cinematic moments of the film are lifted straight from Metropolis, they work all the same. The acting is good or at least passable throughout the field, and I like the light banter and the humour in the romantic scenes, even if Michael Deane comes off as a terrible male chauvinist in the beginning of the film. But that’s sort of the point as well, as Evelyn and the other women rise up against him and the other chauvinist pilots at the climax of the movie.
But the problem is that while the pieces themselves work, the tonal mix is all wrong. You can buy into naive and black-and-white plots if they are told as metaphors, as operatic fables, like in Homunculus (1916, review), A Trip to Mars (1918, review) or indeed Metropolis. But High Treason tries too hard to be a contemporary romantic drama, saturating it with light-hearted banter and naturalistic performances, which shatters the illusion of unreality. As a viewer, when you’re pulled of of the Wagnerian scope of the Weimar epic and are treated to a pair of jolly good British fellows making comments about the female volleyball players on TV, you instantly start questioning the reality they inhabit, instead of taking it for granted as a world you’ve been transported into. The film also explains too much of its world for us to not start poking holes in it. By simply setting the film in a “near future” and explaining that it is now divided in two blocs, the movie could have gotten away without explaining, for example, what happened to international communism. The whole of the Soviet Union, including large chunks of China, are shown as a grey area on the map, but is never commented upon. This, naturally, can’t stand without audience members shouting at the screen: “Hey, what about the Russkies?!”
In Metropolis, the peace preacher Maria was shown as a prophet-like character bringing workers together in very informal settings, but the Peace League is portrayed as having very real, institutionalised power, without it ever being explained what its actual legal nature is. It’s not a nation, so why is it represented in the Federation Council? It’s clearly not sanctioned by the president or any other government body, but seems to work as a lobby organisation within government. And while all the technology in High Treason would have been highly plausible in 1929 — pretty much all of it exists today — there’s no way the audience would believe that such revolutionary technological breakthroughs would have become commonplace in only ten years (or even twenty, as in the sound version). And when you remove the operatic qualities of your characters, you also lay them bare to moral and logical scrutiny, and the complete lack of character motivations in this film is glaring.
So while the film is occasionally gorgeous to look at, well designed, filmed and indeed edited, and flows along very nicely, it’s also an infuriating experience, as the script is such an inane mess. To Gaumont British’s credit it must be stated that they at least tried to couple the epic futuristic landscape with some intelligence, which is more than can be said for its American counterpart Just Imagine (1930), which arrived the next year.
Maurice Elvey is not a name usually mentioned on lists of the greatest British directors of all time, and perhaps rightly so, even if he has undergone something of a re-evaluation of late. Elvey started working odd jobs in London at the age of nine after having ran away from home the late 19th century, but soon entered the theatre business as a stage hand and actor. His hard work allowed to rise quickly in the ranks, and in 1911 he founded his own theatre company, often producing new and radical productions. However, only two years later he decided to jump ship to the rapidly growing film industry, and quickly started making short films in rapid succession. Most of his early films starred actress Elisabeth Risdon, whom he turned into a bone fide movie star. She would later move to Hollywood, where she made a career out of playing mothers and what other roles were available for women over 40.
Elvey quickly became one of Britain’s leading movie directors, often tackling literary classics, like Dickens or Shakespeare, or historical biopics. He made the first British adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club in 1914, and his 1917 adaptation of Dickens’ Dombey and Son was a huge success. 1918 could have been a game changer not only for Elvey, but for British cinema as a whole, film scholars today have argued. This was the year that Elvey was posed to release The Life Story of David Lloyd George. But for political reasons, the film was suppressed in the last minute, and was never screened until just some years ago, after it had been rediscovered in 1994 and restored. Modern film scholars have been baffled by how far ahead of its time the film was, incorporating elements that were only beginning to brew in Europe and the US at the time, such as associative editing, later adopted by Soviet filmmakers, based in Lev Kuleshov’s montage theory. Commenting on the splendid editing of High Treason, one contemporary critic snidely remarked that Elvey “had at least seen Battleship Potemkin“. In reality Elvey was fooling around with montage before anyone had even heard of Sergei Eisenstein. Had The Life Story of David Lloyd George been released in 1918, we might well be speaking of Maurice Elvey with the same awe we reserve for Alfred Hitchcock, but, alas, it was not to be.
However, this didn’t slow Elvey down in the least, and in the early twenties, generally referred to as the great slump of British film, he was, along with a few other filmmakers, one of the reasons that British cinema didn’t completely grind to a halt. In 1921 and 1922 he directed a string of Sherlock Holmes films, including the first British adaptation of The Hound of Baskervilles (1921). Elvey’s series of films starred Ellie Norwood as Holmes, who became the first actor to “own” the role of the sleuth in a way that so few of the hundreds of actors who have played him have been able to do. Norwood was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s favourite on-screen Holmes (mind you, he didn’t live to see Rathbone’s work).
In 1924 and 1925, at the same time a young Alfred Hithcock was visiting Fritz Lang’s set in Germany, Elvey spent a year in Hollywood, soaking up all new information and inspiration he could, and also directed half a dozen movies. He made yet one picture n Germany before returning home. His international tour seems to have been inspiring: upon his return he made a series of films, among which are a handful of productions which are considered not only Elvey’s best films, but some of the best that the British silent era had to offer, Hindle Wakes (1927), Palais de Danse (1928) and High Treason (1929).
The talent pool in British film grew substantially with the passing of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, giving younger and more inexperienced filmmakers the chance to experiment on quota quickies, as well as take on larger productions, as the film quota for cinemas had to be filled, one way or the other. Directors like Hitchcock, Michael Powell, David Lean, and later Carol Reed and Alexander Mackendrick emerged, pushing the veteran Elvey away from the limelight. Not that it hurt his career — Elvey was one of the few directors that were constantly employed both during and after WWII, often making quota quickies in any conceivable genre. During the Second World War he worked with Leslie Howard on the critically praised The Gentle Sex (1943) and took over direction on The Lamp Still Burns (1943) after Howard’s death. Medal for the General, his wartime production for British National, and his big-budget post-war melodrama Beware of Pity are also worthy of note, according to Lawrence Napper at Reference Guide to British and Irish Filmmakers. Elvey retired from directing in 1957 due to blindness in one eye, but continued as consultant and mentor to younger filmmakers to his death in 1967. Despite his long list of credits, Elvey only made one other science fiction film — oddly enough again featuring a tunnel — the big budget production The Tunnel (1935), which was also made as a German and French production by other directors.
One of Elvey’s adepts was a young fellow by the name of David Lean, who worked as a camera man on Elvey’s movie Palais de Danse (1928) and was assistant director on both Balaclava (1928) and High Treason. Lean then worked as an editor for ten years, before making a name for himself as co-director on films like Major Barbara (1941) and In Which We Serve (1942), and got his final breakthrough with his lauded Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), before rising to even greater heights with classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965).
Britain continued producing science fiction films up to WWII, often in association with French and German companies. Maurice Elvey’s The Tunnel (1935) was considerable success, but the sluggish and over-wrought epic Things to Come (1936) discouraged companies to produce high-profile science fiction movies for years to come. There were odd sci-fi themed comedies made during the forties and early fifties, but it really wasn’t until the BBC TV show The Quatermass Experiment became a national sensation that interest in making science fiction movies was rekindled in the UK. And by that time High Treason was a forgotten curiosity — the fifties were all about space rockets and alien invasions.
A shoutout this time goes to John T. Soister and Henry Nicolella for their superb entry on High Treason inDown from the Attic: Rare Thrillers of the Silent Era through the 1950s, as well as Lucie Dutton’s entry on the movie at South West Silents.
High Treason. 1929, UK. Directed by Maurice Elvey. Written by L’Estrange Fawcett. Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing. Starring: Benita Hume, Basil Gill, Humberston Wright, Jameson Thomas, Raymond Massey, Rene Ray, Kiyoshi Takase, Wally Patch, Milton Rosmer. Music: Louis Levy, Quentin MacLean. Cinematography: Percy Strong. Art direction: Andrew Mazzei. Costume design: Gordon Conway. Sound recordist: Stan Jolly. Special effects: Philippo Guidobaldi. Produced for Gaumont British.