High Treason (1929)

High Treason (1929)

‘I can’t possibly come out tonight, we’ve got to stop this war.’

In the near future, the world is ruled by two superpowers; the Atlantic States and the Federated States of Europe. Relations between the two are already tense and, behind the scenes, a cartel of arms manufacturers plan to escalate the situation into all-out war.

This slice of early British prophetic Science Fiction was filmed in both silent and ‘talking’ versions, the latter of which was thought lost for many years. The action begins on the border between the two superpowers, where an incident with rum runners sparks a shootout between the border guards on either side. We assume that this is the U.S./Canadian border (where else could it be?), although that would mean that Canada is now part of Europe. Well, it’s possible I guess; it is a member of the Commonwealth, after all. Hell of a job policing that border, though, which begs the question why don’t the smugglers simply walk across somewhere else? Anyway, everyone has fold-out passports, which look pretty cool, although probably quite impractical.

‘These speakers go up to eleven you know…’

Caught up in these international ramifications are dashing Airforce officer Basil Gill and his gal Benita Hume. There are problems with the relationship already, though; she’s the pretty daughter of the leader of the World Peace Movement, a highly influential organisation that wield almost as much global power as the two governments in question. The story develops with the embers of War being stoked by leaders of the international arms trade, who actually perform acts of terrorism to provoke the conflict. Now, why would that sound kind of familiar?

Unfortunately, the straight-laced, moralistic tone of the film is rather overbearing, and there’s little audience investment possible in our star-crossed leads. Hume and Gill are just too stilted and unconvincing, although it can’t have been easy playing a scene for the silent version, and then attempting the unfamiliar talking medium a few moments later. A tense aerodrome stand-off between regular troops and conscripted women who refuse to fight is the films’ most effective sequence, even if it is too conveniently resolved. Curiously, the silent version is set in 1950, but the talking one takes place 10 years earlier! It’s a strange decision on the part of the filmmakers. There are a few other differences too; most notably that the attack on London and the Peace HQ is real in one version; but only part of a vision in the other. This may have been down to the territories in which each version was released, of course; the American distributor perhaps being uncomfortable with the notion of the US being portrayed as an aggressive, militaristic superpower.

Most of the enjoyment a modern audience will derive is by comparing the filmmaker’s vision with how things actually turned out. The City of London is all skyscrapers, elevated motorways and monorails, with lots of small planes buzzing between. Yes, it’s a cut-price ‘Metropolis’ (1926) but with poorer model work. There are daily television news broadcasts though, and we have the Channel Tunnel and Videophones. The technology isn’t always reliable though, which is where the film is at its most accurate!

On the other hand, detachable sleeves and hairdryers on rubber tubes haven’t really caught on, although the walk in shower/drying/dressing unit probably still could. There’s a full band playing at a nightclub dance, with all instruments operated by one man at a keyboard, and a President of Europe is something that looks less likely with every passing year.

Possibly the film’s most interesting moments are a few seconds that happen around the 19-minute mark in both versions. Our handsome hero walks through the Peace Headquarters on his way to meet his gal, and all the secretaries in the main hall follow him with their eyes. There’s a brief mid-shot of one of them fixing her makeup. But, hang on a moment, isn’t that silent film icon Louise Brooks?! What other woman of the time had THAT haircut? Or that profile?! And the shot is completely unnecessary, and doesn’t really ‘fit’. It looks spliced in from another source.

Circumstantial evidence backs the notion; Brooks had been filming in Europe in the late 1920s and may well have stopped off in the U.K. on her way back home. She was arguing vociferously with MGM at the time, and it would have been typical of her to do a bit of moonlighting just to assert her independence and spite the studio. Sadly, I can find absolutely no corroboration of my assertion anywhere at all, not on the web or in any literature about her. But it’s definitely possible.

A somewhat creaky enterprise all told; worth watching to compare this ‘future’ with the real thing. And worth watching for that brief appearance by Louise Brooks (if it is her!)

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