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High Treason: Looking forward to 1940 or reaching back to the Great War?

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

With our upcoming screening of High Treason at the Curzon in Clevedon on September 10th 2016, we felt it necessary to get some words up on the website about this spectacular film.

Luckily for us we know the brilliant Lucie Dutton, a PhD student at Birkbeck College, who is currently completing a thesis on the film’s director Maurice Elvey! For a film launched between the two wars, and at the transition moment of sound arriving in the UK, Lucie has been good enough to outline in detail what this films means for British film history. Without further ado, over to Lucie!

Maurice Elvey’s High Treason (1929), a vision of the future, is often referred to as “The British Metropolis”. Depending on the version you watch, it is set in 1940, 1950, or even – in a French version – in 1995. There are modernist cityscapes and exciting innovations: television, the televisor videophone, luxurious showers and handheld drying machines. You can travel to Europe by luxury train through a Channel Tunnel. You can go to a nightclub and dance the Hesitation Waltz to a Phantome Orchestre, and then enjoy a fencing display by female swordfighters. And at work you can join regimented ranks of office workers in what looks like a prototype paperless office. Based on a play by maverick right-wing ex-MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, The Stage (August 22 1929) noted that Elvey’s adaptation had resulted in ‘one of the most elaborate films ever made in England, and the stage carpenter, property men, and scenic artists are deserving of much praise.’  To make things even more modern, High Treason was filmed at the exact time that the British film industry was converting to sound – so it was released in both silent and sound versions.

But is this the whole story? Is High Treason simply the British Metropolis? Look beyond the cityscapes and fabulous costumes and the film seems to be about looking back to, and attempting to come to terms with, the First World War as well as looking forward to the future.

High Treason Video Phone

High Treason on the stage

On Armistice Night 1927, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) made a speech at the Royal Albert Hall. He 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.’

This speech was published and made available as a gramophone recording. On hearing it Noel Pemberton-Billing was inspired to write a play. After thirteen hours’ hard writing, High Treason was complete. According to the Derby Daily Telegraph (October 30 1928), the play was ‘designed to show the value of peace and the criminal folly of war.’

Pemberton-Billing’s play has two settings: 10 Downing Street and the Old Bailey, and concerns a campaigning barrister, Stephen Deane, who defends a Bishop, who is also the leader of an international “League of Peace”. The Bishop has shot the Prime Minister in an attempt to prevent the outbreak of war. At the Bishop’s trial at the Old Bailey, his daughter (the only female character) perjures herself in an attempt to save him.

When the play was produced in November 1928, it flopped. The Times, (November 8 1928) called it “remarkably crude” and complained that ‘There is no need to pick holes in the play; they gape; for a dozen reasons the thing does not hold water. And yet it holds something – something that makes it much less tedious than many pieces a thousand times more competent. Mr Pemberton-Billing has seen this Bishop, who will sacrifice his loyalty and his life for the sake of peace, as a saint and a martyr […] The consequence is that from the blunders of craftsmanship a stumbling passion, an awkward fanaticism emerges. This does not make the piece either good entertainment or a work of art.’

High Treason Car

From flop to film

Pemberton-Billing’s play closed after 13 days and has not been revived since. But it lives on because in 1929 Maurice Elvey turned it into a film for Gaumont, to add to his run of successful recent work such as The Flag Lieutenant, and Hindle Wakes. The New York Times (August 25 1929) questioned the wisdom of choosing such source material: ‘High Treason ‘is founded upon a play written by Pemberton-Billing, and produced by the author at his own expense a year or so ago. Mr Billing’s drama had a run that was short but not sweet, unlike the proverbial donkey’s gallop. It was laughed out of court. Why a film maker should imagine that a play which was a failure should make a successful talking picture passes ordinary comprehension.’ However, there was a good team working on High Treason – and they turned the play into a memorable film.

The personnel who worked on High Treason with Elvey were a well-established team, having worked on several of his earlier features. This included Cinematographer Percy Strong, Art Director Andrew L Mazzei, as well as Assistant Director Fred Merrick, who was also Elvey’s younger brother and who can be seen in the film as the lead terrorist in the channel tunnel. The other key member of the team – who worked with Elvey on High Treason only, and who Elvey respected as a writer on film – was L’Estrange Fawcett, scenario writer and man in charge of production management.

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.

Why might Elvey – very much a star director at this stage of his career – have chosen this subject?

High Treason Gun Man

Looking back to the Great War

Elvey portrayed Pemberton-Billing’s League of Peace in some detail, showing, in his words that ‘all the countries of the world, the ordinary people had refused to fight, any more, each other … they’d had enough of the First World War.’ And in some ways, despite the futuristic appearance of High Treason, it seems to reflect the anxieties of the past rather than look to the future. So what is going on?

In the second half of the 1920s, films about the Great War started to appear – films like The Big Parade (1925) and What Price Glory (1926). The UK saw films like Blighty (1927) and The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). Elvey himself made Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1926), its sequel Mademoiselle Parley Voo (1928) and Roses of Picardy (1928). Victor Saville, Elvey’s partner at Gaumont between 1926 and 1927, wrote that Elvey was a “voracious reader” and that he was reading World War One novels at the time. In Saville’s words, ‘There seemed an urgency to learn what it was all about, to try and understand the real face of a war that had started with such a jingoist strain.’

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. A small amount of the horror of the real-life bombing raids is conveyed in a report from The Times, on 26 September 1916:

‘We saw a group of men with lanterns in active movement before one of the houses. There was smoke still in the road and the pungent smell of an explosive. The house was completely smashed and the little garden in front was piled high with its wreckage. The inhabitants, two women and two girls were brought out […] The most moving sights were to be seen in the residential side roads. Here one saw, occasionally a gap in a line of houses. The home that stood there and its household gods were a mass of rubbish. From one of these abodes a mother and her two children were brought out dead […] In one such house I saw a coloured chromo-portrait of the King hanging still on the bare plastered wall from which the paper hung in tatters.’

And in High Treason, Elvey recreated such terrifying bombing sequences. The most dramatic is an attack in the Channel Tunnel, and the filming was so dramatic it was reported in the Nottingham Evening Post on June 26 1929:

‘The operations commenced with a deafening explosion which wrecked a perfect reproduction of a Pullman coach and filled the studio with acrid smoke. It also made a breach in the Tunnel wall, resulting in an inrush of water -14 tons of it – which fell in a mighty deluge upon the dozen or so artists who had accepted the roles of the ill-fated passengers with characteristic sangfroid. Complete pandemonium reigned for some minutes, for above the roar of the flood could be heard the piercing shrieks and groans of the doomed and struggling passengers and of sustained and shattering explosions. Two of the actresses were literally washed up at the producer’s feet like damp offerings, while one of the “silent” camera operators was also swept away through his determination to film the unfortunate passengers’ point of view, as it were. Six microphones recorded the audible aspect of the scene, after which the “drowned” artists went off to stimulating drinks and dry clothes and the studio staff set about the unenviable task of putting the premises to rights.’

Moving on to Sound

As indicated in the extract above with its reference to both the “audible aspect” of “shrieks and groans” and the “silent” camera operator, when Elvey was in the middle of making High Treason ‘sound came in, so we had to … adapt our equipment to taking sound.  … Unfortunately, we were a long time editing, cutting and arranging, doing all sorts of things and my rival at that time – and very good friend – was Alfred Hitchcock [who] got out first, with the first English sound picture: the famous production of Blackmail.’ (Elvey, talking in 1963 to Ralph Bond, BECTU History Project).

Elvey – ever interested in new innovations – adapted High Treason to turn it into a sound film. Some sequences were shot in both silent and sound versions, while other silent sequences were used as originally filmed. He also set a puzzle for his viewers, as reported in the Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg on July 4, 1930:

‘No voice doubles were [used] for the principals in the Gaumont British film High Treason but Maurice Elvey has created a record among producers for doubling parts in his own production […] Elvey spoke nine voices in High Treason. In one scene he is heard but not seen, as a wireless-announcer. In another case, the image on the televisor screen is that of another man, but the voice is that of Elvey. These two voices are easily recognisable by those people who know Maurice Elvey, but the other seven voices are less distinguishable, and at present, Elvey will not spoil his friends’ “voice-hunting” by assisting them with clues.’

Elvey was well placed to set this challenge, having contributed to a special course about the impact of sound on film acting arranged by the Federation of British Industries at RADA in May 1929. (We can now compare the silent and sound versions, thanks to BFI Player, which carries both versions. The silent version is superior, and it is the silent version we will be seeing on 10 September thanks to South West Silents.)

Watching High Treason today

Hopefully this piece will demonstrate that High Treason has a broader range than being simply “The British Metropolis” and hopefully it might help address some of the strange gaps between the costumes, settings and technology shown on the screen and some of the attitudes of the plot and characterisation.

These gaps have been questioned since August 1929 when the Manchester Guardian complained that ‘The general mentality of the film is shown by the fact that when the soldiers are about to shoot, [the heroine] cries out: “They dare not fire on women,” which, considering that women have taken on the responsibilities of men and walk about in breeches, is shirking the question […] More radical changes have taken place in Germany and Russia since the war than are shown in these States a decade hence.’ High Treason occupies an uncomfortable space, in which the excitement of the future is still constrained by the memories of the past. Even the arrival of sound cannot make the film wholly modern. And that is why it is so interesting. With its strange combination of innovation and inhibition, High Treason gives us a stylish but frustrating vision of an unrealised future.

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