Monday, 28 October 2013

High Treason

Director: Maurice Elvey
Writer: L’Estrange Fawcett
Cast: Jameson Thomas, Benita Hume, Humberston Wright
Year of release: 1929
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK conference screening

One by one, I’m tracking down and seeing those pre-war SF movies, ticking them off my list. I’ve seen Secrets of FP1, I’ve seen Son of Kong, I’ve got The Tunnel sitting on my shelf waiting for me, and now I’ve seen High Treason. That still leaves Just Imagine and Die Frau im Mond, but I can wait.

Unfortunately, High Treason turns out, after all that, to be rubbish. The film was shot in 1929 in two versions: one silent and one using that new fangled ‘talkie’ process. The BFI has prints of both but unfortunately the sound elements of the talkie version are in such a poor state that they’re unusable. So this screening at the 2003 conference of the International Association for Media and History was a Beta tape of the BFI’s silent print.

Basically, this is a very simplistic anti-war story. There are two power blocks: the Atlantic states, which seems to be the USA and the British Empire, and the European states, which is Johnny Foreigner. We open at a manned border crossing, which is puzzling in itself because, like, where is this border? Later on it’s made clear that one end of the Channel Tunnel (A tunnel under the English Channel? Futuristic nonsense!) is in Atlantic territory and the other on European soil. So it’s not as if we’ve re-established our rightful ownership of Calais.

So where is this border crossing? Wherever, there are guards there, playing cards and nearly starting a war when one of them cheats. Then an odd-looking car turns up with a couple who are accused of smuggling booze (or something) and this creates a border incident which leads to possible war.

Our three main characters are Atlantic military officer Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas: Charlie Chan in Egypt and an uncredited role as a doctor in Universal’s The Invisible Man), his sweetheart Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume: Tarzan Escapes) and her father (Humberston Wright, who was Dr Petrie alongside Fred Paul’s Nayland Smith in an early 1920s series of Fu Manchu pictures). As war looms, helped along by a bunch of ‘professional agitators’ who plant a bomb in the channel tunnel, knowing each side will blame the other, Evelyn and Michael find themselves on different sides. (I love the idea of ‘professional’ agitators. Is there some sort of union or something? Can you take a City and Guilds in agitation?)

Dr Seymour and his daughter run the Peace Corps, a worldwide organisation devoted to peaceful resistance, apparently consisting entirely of women except for Dr S (dirty old git!). We see them suiting up, including some scandalous shots of young ladies in their underwear. One woman is desperate not to go and is allowed to leave because she has a child at home (er, wouldn’t that apply to a lot of the women?), making her apparently a conscientious objector to the Peace Corps. The Corps’ main office is full of young women at desks, while Dr S sits at the front controlling a big pipe-organ-like affair which continually racks up how many members there are in all the world’s major cities.

Anyway, war looms closer, Michael has to fight, Evelyn doesn’t want him to. Hordes of white-clad Peace Corps women clamber all over biplanes, preventing them from being used, and eventually the problem is solved when Dr Seymour assassinates the Atlantic President (Basil Gill: the 1937 TV version of Journey’s End). Yes, very peaceful that. The film winds down (and down and down) with a tedious courtroom sequence in which Dr S is tried for murder, but he smiles beatifically because he knows that he averted war.

What a load of tosh. Old and rare is not always good, and here it’s downright terrible. Characters are one-dimensional and uninteresting, there’s no depth to the plot whatsoever, and the political views espoused are both naive and contradictory. To be fair, I suppose it wasn’t inopportune to think that, the First World War having been caused by intransigence and dogma on the part of out-of-touch political leaders, the next war might start that way too. In 1929 it wouldn’t have been obvious that it would start by some charismatic but insane politico blaming his country’s suffering on Jews, then annexing the Sudetenland and invading Poland. The year of High Treason, incidentally, is never specifically identified on screen, other than being post-1938. Various sources cite it as anything from 1940 to 1955.

Director Maurice Elvey’s amazing career goes back at least as far as a 1913 version of Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn, taking in two versions of Hindle Wakes (1918 and 1927), Vice Versa (1916), the infamous lost-but-rediscovered 1918 biopic The Life of David Lloyd George, The Clairvoyant (1934), The Tunnel (1935), the early British colour picture Sons of the Sea (1939) and a whole series of Sherlock Holmes pictures in 1921. He directed his last film in 1957 aged 70 and died ten years later; the Lloyd George film aside, he has a reputation as a dull, workmanlike director and I can see why. The most notable other credit for writer L’Estrange Fawcett (what a great name!) was the 1930 fantasy comedy Alf’s Button. A young David Lean worked on the film as assistant director while art director Andrew Mazzei later worked on a couple of early Hammer thrillers - Wings of Danger and The Last Page.

Also in the cast are James Carew (Midnight at Madame Tussaud’s, Mystery of the Marie Celeste, The Tunnel), Alfred Goddard (Non-Stop New York and the 1937 King Solomon’s Mines), Wally Patch (The Ghosts of Berkeley Square, I’m All Right Jack, a 1937 version of Dr Syn, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, various comedies alongside George Formby, Arthur Askey, Max Miller, Gert and Daisy and Old Mother Riley - and even Cathy Come Home), Milton Rosmer (a 1948 version of The Monkey’s Paw and the title role in - who knew such a thing existed? - a 1921 British version of French horror classic Belphegor), and allegedly Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace) and Rene Ray (later the author of the novel that The Strange World of Planet X was based on).

The special effects vary enormously. Some of the cityscapes are not bad, with miniature planes flying over, though there’s a very amusing couple of shots where a miniature autogyro is seen to take off and land vertically! There’s also some archive footage of contemporary ‘state of the art’ planes which is historically interesting. Aside from the car seen at the start, there’s no really imaginative design. One particularly stupid scene has couples doing a ‘futuristic dance’ to the sound of an automatic orchestra, which in the unimaginative, prosaic way of these things is all the actual instruments - trumpets, drums, etc - being remotely controlled by a chap with various knobs and buttons. Dear oh dear.

One of the reason for the prominence of aeroplanes is that High Treason was (very) loosely based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing, an aircraft fanatic and designer who founded the Supermarine company. This screening of the film was preceded by some archive documentary footage of Pemberton Billing, relaxing at home and driving a bullet-shaped car which he designed and built himself.

Pemberton Billing seems a fascinating bloke: an MP, a writer, an inventor, a designer and a social reformer. He founded, in the late teens, a dodgy sounding organisation called The Society of Vigilantes which was devoted to promoting ‘purity of life’ in Britain. This body seems to have flourished briefly, with several thousand members, before disappearing. But ‘PB’ remains most notorious not for the Society of Vigilantes, not for founding the company which built the Spitfire, not for High Treason - but for winning a libel case based on the word ‘clitoris’!

Gentle readers should avert their eyes now. It seems that back in those unenlightened days, when it was well known that lesbians were mentally and medically retarded freaks of nature, one of the distinguishing features of a follower of Sapphos was thought to be an abnormally large clitoris. Pemberton Billing wrote an article in one of his many publications in which he discussed a well-known actress and her performance in Wilde’s Salome. The article was headed ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’ and the implication - though never overtly stated - was that this particular actress was a lezza.

The actress sued for libel. But PB’s lawyer argued that ‘clitoris’ was an obscure medical term - that he had shown the article to several dozen well-educated people and none of them had known what the word in the title meant. The judge concurred, adding that he had also mentioned the title to people to be met with blank looks. The average (well-educated, upper class) person in the street simply did not know what a ‘clitoris’ was. But the actress must have understood - in order to be offended.

Since she was not a medically trained professional, the only other way she could possibly have understood the title enough to take offence would be if she actually was a lesbian! Implying that she was a tuppence-licker could not be considered libel, because the mere fact that the implication offended her proved that she obviously was one! A stunning piece of argument, which has kept Noel Pemberton Billing’s name alive in the minds of feminist historians ever since.

Anyway, back at High Treason, let’s be honest, this is rubbish and only a curiosity. Comparisons with Metropolis are daft and lazy; Lang’s film is infinitely superior in terms of both design and story, despite being made several years earlier. The one notable and intriguing aspect of the film is the use of televisions and videophones. Moving images are seen on flat screens sticking up from desks. The images fade in and out, there are no obvious matte edges, people and objects move in front of the images - I cannot for the life of me work out how these are done. It’s a terrific effect. But sadly, it’s not enough to save High Treason from being crap.

Watch it once, just to say you’ve seen it, but don’t expect to enjoy it.

MJS rating: C-
review originally posted before November 2004

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