Sunday, December 6 • 7:30pm - 9:30pm
High Treason (1929)

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High Treason (1929)
In December 2005--10 years ago--the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association (AMIPA) received a collection of 35mm cellulose nitrate films from a private party in Washington State. Among the reels was a complete lavender fine grain (a production element that would have been used to strike projection prints) of a British feature film called High Treason (1929).

A science fiction film with political dimensions, directed by Maurice Elvey, High Treason was one of the first projects the celebrated British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) worked on (as an uncredited assistant director). Made during cinema’s transition from the silent era to sound, it was produced and distributed as both a silent film, and a “talkie.” In researching the film back in 2005, AMIPA consulted film historian Kevin Brownlow’s 1996 biography of Lean, and learned that the sound version of High Treason was thought to be "lost"--and yet the reels they had recovered were clearly marked, "synchronous sound."

AMIPA shipped the entire collection of nitrate--including the "lost" sound version of High Treason--directly from Washington State to the Library of Congress, to be held on deposit in their nitrate vault (cellulose nitrate is extremely flammable, and requires specialized storage facilities). Since that time, the Library has done restoration work on both the image and the sound, with funding from The Film Foundation; and the restored film has been screened by the Library of Congress, the British Film Institute (BFI), and others.

The BFI screening was held in conjunction with a major science fiction screening series they mounted across the UK in the Fall of 2014. For their screening of the film, they digitized a projection print of the restored film that they had on loan from the Library of Congress, and produced a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for use with their projection system. Earlier this year, BFI provided AMIPA with a copy of the DCP, which made this screening at the Anchorage International Film Festival possible.

High Treason presented courtesy of AMIPA. DCP courtesy of BFI. Preserved by the Library of Congress. Preservation funding provided by The Film Foundation. Program notes below courtesy of Jack Theakston, Capitol Theatre (Rome, NY).


Directed by Maurice Elvey; Screenplay by L’Estrange Fawcett; Musical Score, Louis Levy and Q. MacLean; Photographed by Percy Strong; Art Director, Andrew Mazzei; Costumes, Gordon Conway; Assistant Directors, Fred V. Merrick [and David Lean]; Sound Recordist, Stan Jolly; [Special Effects, Philippo Guidobaldi]; [Second Assistant Camera, Alan Lawson]; [Musical Director, Louis Levy]; Based on the 1928 play by Noel Pemberton-Billing. 68 minutes.

Cast: Jameson Thomas (Michael Deane), Benita Hume (Evelyn Seymour), Basil Gill (President Stephen Deane), Humberston Wright (Dr. Seymour), Henry Vibart (Lord Sycamore), James Carew (Lord Rawleigh), Hayford Hobbs (Charles Falloway), Milton Rosmer (Ernest Stratton), Judd Greeen (James Groves), Alf Goddard (tele-radiographer), Irene Rooke (senator), Clifford Heatherley (delegate), Wally Patch (commissionaire), Raymond Massey (cabinet member), John Singer (boy), and Renee Ray, Kiyoshi Takase.

The future of 1940 is the subject matter of High Treason, based on inventor/aviator/pacifist Noel Pemberton-Billing’s 1928 three-act play of the same title. Largely due to its unavailability, High Treason is now largely forgotten as the first all-talking picture shot in Great Britain. Because of issues with the sound recording, however, it was England’s second talkie released, after the far more famous Blackmail, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Billing’s play—which included future director James Whale (Frankenstein) in the cast—had a brief run, but one that made enough of an impact that Gaumont-British took note of the drama and optioned the rights to film it.

Contracted with British Acoustic, Ltd., Gaumont shot High Treason with their audio system that utilized a full-aperture picture on one film, and the sound played back (at the equivalent to 48 fps!) on a separate film. By the time the picture was released State-side by Tiffany Pictures, the separate track was re-recorded onto a new track negative for standard optical playback, as well as a dual-inventory sound-on-disc release.

The obvious lineage of High Treason's special effects—and in many ways its pacifist philosophy—is Fritz Lang's Metropolis, released in Germany by UFA in 1927. That same year, Paramount Pictures drastically re-cut the film for US release, and the international release of the picture followed suit. The scale of the special effects in High Treason, particularly the large cityscapes and futuristic vehicles, are in some ways direct copies of Lang's own vision.

An August 1929 trade screening of the sound version was particularly well received, with advance notes from The New York Times criticizing the absurdity of the storyline, but admitting of the film’s technical qualities, “American makers of sound films have certainly…something to learn from their British competitors.” British critics were also somewhat unkind to the film, as Oswell Blakeston wrote 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.” He also added, “There is one attempt to show that Potemkin has been heard of: the sequence of close-ups after the bombs have been let loose on the headquarters of the Peace Mission. Blood streaming from the mouths, all the rest, but the same old extras instead of Mr. Eisenstein’s types.”

Shortly before its general release in the U.S. during March of 1930, the New York and Pennsylvania state censorship boards banned the film. In New York, the film was refused license on the ground that it “tends to incite to crime” and “be inhuman.” In Pennsylvania, the film was barred on the grounds that it contained content was “salacious, obscene, indecent or immoral or tend, in the judgment of the board, to debase or corrupt morals.” The National Board of Review, a nonpartisan volunteer group made of concerned citizens against legal censorship, protested the decision by screening the film at the Roerich Museum in New York on April 16 to a group of five-hundred prominent citizens—“The National Board of Review protests formally and emphatically against the banning of the film, High Treason, as an act of suppression which is not warranted by the public interests, but which, on the contrary, is opposed to democratic principle, and to the proper development of the motion picture as a medium of expression.” Another protest screening took place in May to no avail—the film stayed banned, and was even rejected in New York State when it was resubmitted five years later!

No rebuke was made to either censor boards regarding alternative motives for the censorship of the film, although it interesting to note that when the film went into general release in June 1930, the effects of the Red Scare crept into some exhibitors’ minds. W. J. Gell, managing director of Gaumont British, released a statement denying Soviet ties—“If the picture portrayed anything realistic at all, it was the futility of war, but it was produced exclusively by this company and at their expense and the subject was chosen because it was unique, interesting and entertaining for no other motive whatsoever.”

Despite the bad publicity, on the West Coast, the film opened to far more prestige. The famous California Theatre, one of the showplaces of Los Angeles, re-opened on May 23 with the picture, supported by the UA/William Cameron Menzies short Hungarian Rhapsody, the Tiffany short Slave Days, Oom Pah Pah, part of the Aesop’s Fables short subject series, and a Pathé newsreel.

An oddball (illegal) screening of the film took place at the Film Forum at the New School for Social Research on March 26, 1933. The program, obviously that of an educational nature, was also paired with J. Stuart Blackton’s March of the Movies, a retrospective of filmmaking up until that point.

In recent years seen exclusively in its British silent version (which, via intertitles, pushes the action ten years forward to 1950), the restoration we present is the American sound version, which at 68-minutes runs almost half an hour shy of the original British sound version’s 95-100 minutes (depending on the source.) The source material for this version of the film was a lavender fine grain print of the film discovered by AMIPA used to make a duplicate negative for the American run.


Kevin Tripp

Archivist and Executive Director, Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association (AMIPA)

Sunday December 6, 2015 7:30pm - 9:30pm
Bear Tooth Theatrepub 1230 W 27th Ave, Anchorage, AK 99503

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