High Treason

Year: 1929

Production: Gaumont

Director: Maurice Elvey

Starring: Benita Hume, Jameson Thomas, Basil Gill, James Carew

Screenwriter: L'Estrange Fawcett

Based on a play by Noel Pemberton-Billing

95 minutes, cut to 69 minues; B/W


This forgotten curiosity, one of the earliest UK sound movies, was quite a big film in its day, when it was seen as a kind of English Metropolis (1926) - a comparison that does not for an instant hold water. Set in the world of 1940 (a Channel tunnel, tv, aeroplanes landing on London skyscrapers), it envisages a tense political situation between United Europe, to which England belongs, and a United America. The Peace League saves the world from war by assassinating the leader of United Europe. The production design is singularly unstriking and the story absurb.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Based on a failed play by Noel Pemberton-Billing, who also financed the movie, this was a very poor British effort intended to match Lang's Metropolis (1926). Paul Rotha, the critic and film-maker, rightly used this Elvey picture as proof of "how poorly England produces a film of this kind", dismissing the very things newspaper reviewers were raving about as drab "arts-and-crafts design". The story is set in 1940 and assumes London has become a concrete jungle with airplanes landing and taking off from the roofs of skyscrapers dwarfing St Paul's, with a fully operational channel tunnel linking England (the rest of the UK is supposed to feel itself included in that country) into a United Europe, and with broadcasting, including television, having replaced print journalism. The plot offers a mixture of political naivety and downright silliness betraying a quite staggering ignorance about the historical processes at work in the inter-war period, although with hindsight, some amusing similarities with the situation in the 80s can be detected. The film tells of two powerblocks, a United Europe and a United America, confronting each other on the brink of war. A Peace League with millions of adherents tries to stop the two governments from destroying the world in a catastrophic war. The solution offered, in spite of the fine humanist sentiments voiced in the movie, is that a conflict between two power blocks can only be stopped by killing the leader of one of them, and the Peace League assassinates the leader of United Europe. It is also worth mentioning that the League is composed of "Peace" women.

Released in the same year as Hitchcock's Blackmail, this movie was acclaimed as being equal to Hiichcock's work and making England the most advanced film nation in the world of the emerging sound era. The ludicrousness of comparing Hitchcock and Elvey shows how a blinkered chauvinism can lead critics to heap praise on mediocre products merely because they establish the presence of "England" on the international market, a phenomenon that didn't die out after 1929, it was repeated regularly throughout postwar British film reviewing, reaching another depressing climax in the 80s wiih the adulation of Gandhi (1982) and the nostalgic academicism of Chariots of Fire (1980).

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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