High Treason (1929)

“Secret forces are driving the great continents into war as surely as they did in 1914…”


Director:  Maurice Elvey

Starring:  Benita Hume, Jameson Thomas, Humberston Wright, Basil Gill

Screenplay:  L’Estrange Fawcett, based upon the play by Noel Pemberton Billing




Synopsis:  Tensions are high at the frontier between the Federated States of Europe and the Atlantic States, with an argument over a game of cards almost escalating into violence. The arrival of a car at the frontier diverts the guards on both sides. The European guards check the papers of the male driver and his female passenger, and inquire about contraband. The car passes over into Atlantic territory, where the process starts again. However, where one of the Atlantic guards finds hidden liquor, the driver of the car speeds away. The Atlantic guards shoot at the car, while one of them throws a grenade at it: a violent explosion destroys the car and kills its occupants. This overreaction provokes one of the European guards into shooting the Atlantean who threw the grenade. There is an exchange of fire across the frontier… The border incident brings the entire world to the brink of war; something the powerful World League of Peace is determined to prevent. The Peace League is a genuine power in the world, something which infuriates the military forces on both sides. However, Major Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas), though commanding officer of the European Ministry of Air, accepts its existence and influence more philosophically than most of his brethren – not least because he is engaged to Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), the daughter of the founder and head of the Peace League, Dr Stephen Seymour (Humberston Wright). Michael’s father (Basil Gill) – who also happens to be the President of the Federated States of Europe – warns him that his relationship with Evelyn can only end in disaster. Nor, on the other side of the argument, is Dr Seymour any happier about his daughter being involved with a soldier; although in keeping with his principles, he does not interfere. World tensions continue to escalate as the Atlantic States express resentment of the European reaction to the border incident. In conference with his cabinet, the President of the Atlantic States accuses the European States of trying to create a crisis in order to have an excuse to attack. The Atlantic representative of the Peace League counters that, according to Dr Seymour, the situation is being manipulated by professional agitators working for a group of arms manufacturers. The President comments that even if Dr Seymour is right, the European States might still mount an attack. Another member of the cabinet draws a horrifying word-picture of aerial warfare, moving the President to insist that the Atlantic States must strike the first blow… As the President makes this announcement, the confederation of professional agitators, who have been secretly monitoring the cabinet meeting, sit back in satisfaction at the success of their tactics. A message is sent to the confederation of arms manufacturers informing them of the Atlantic States’ intention to send an ultimatum to Europe, and promising to carry out an act of sabotage that will guarantee war: the bombing of a train travelling through the Channel Tunnel between England and France…

Comments:  In the late 1920s the British film industry, like its American counterpart, was forced to make a decision about the question of converting from silent to sound film. Britain, however, had further concerns: namely, how to stave off the artistic and financial threat represented by Hollywood. One answer was to pass the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, which required (among other things) that a certain proportion of films exhibited in Britain be British—thus inadvertently giving birth to the “quota quickie”, inexpensively produced, rapidly shot films made purely to satisfy the requirements of the Act, and that in word rather than in spirit.

A more radical – though, as it turned out, no less successful – tactic for challenging Hollywood’s dominance was to produce films unlike the ones being made in America. To this more defiant mindset can be attributed the production of 1929’s High Treason, a science fiction extravaganza quite unlike anything produced in Britain or America to that point. That said, the inspiration for the film was not far to seek: Fritz Lang’s fingerprints are all over High Treason, although the British film is in every respect a more restrained, less daring production than Metropolis.

But as it turned out, certain critics of the time found this very tentativeness praiseworthy, arguing that High Treason was a superior film to Metropolis because its vision of the future was “realistic”. Modern viewers, I think, are likely to take issue with both of those assertions; although this is not to say that High Treason is not worth watching; far from it.

While the silent / sound debate was still carrying on in Britain in 1929, in the US the public had already come down on the side of the latter. Consequently, while High Treason was produced in both silent and sound versions, only the latter was exported to America: a decision which has had a significant impact on the film’s subsequent fate. A copy of the silent version is held by the British Film Institute. At one time it held the sound version, too, but the film was produced at a time when pictures and sound were recorded separately, and the sound elements deteriorated beyond recovery.

From this point the sound version was considered lost until, oddly, a print turned up a few years ago in the possession of the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association. It was subsequently given to the Library of Congress for preservation and restoration. Unfortunately, it seems that the existing sound print of High Treason is incomplete. Records suggest that the original sound version may have been up to ten minutes longer than the silent version; while the rediscovered print is apparently fifteen to twenty minutes shorter.


I suppose it’s rather churlish to complain about this, given that just a few years ago the film was thought not to survive at all. And, in fact, it’s extraordinary that it does, given the hostile reception that High Treason received upon arrival in America, where it found itself banned outright in New York and Pennsylvania (the individual states still having their own Boards of Review at this time). In the former the reasons given were that High Treason “tends to incite to crime” and was “inhuman”, while the latter classed the film among those that were, “Salacious, obscene, indecent or immoral or tend, in the judgment of the board, to debase or corrupt morals.”

(Amusingly enough, High Treason’s American distributor seems to have taken this in stride, producing a poster that promoted the film as, “So frank and sensational that it has been barred from exhibition in many states.”)

While we assume, or at least hope, that the existing sound version of High Treason will eventually be made available, for the time being we must concentrate upon the silent.

Behind the film version of High Treason is a story almost mind-bogglingly odd, though this is neither the time nor the place to pursue most of it. I will simply confine myself to mentioning that the film was based upon a play of the same name written by the exceedingly strange Noel Pemberton Billing. The film, like the play, is frankly pacifist, which seems strange coming from a man who spent most of his adult life in the air force, and whose pet subject (ahem: one of his pet subjects) was aircraft design and aerial warfare.

Produced in 1928, the play was not a success – its failure freed one of its cast members, James Whale, to take over the direction of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End – which rather begs the question of why it was chosen as the basis for such an expensive film production.


The answer can only be that with its setting in the far-flung future of 1940*, it offered Maurice Elvey and his team the opportunity to create something that, if not exactly Metropolislike, was as least as close to Metropolis as the British film industry cared to venture.

(*It was 1940 when the film was produced, but some prints carry a title card that places the action in 1950.)

High Treason is a film that is compelling and absurd in about equal measure; in fact, it is at its most compelling when it is at its most absurd, fascinating in its very wrongheadedness. It is also (to offer a less backhanded bit of praise) consistently visually arresting. Its main failing—well, its main production failing; we’ll discuss all the others in due course—is that it leaves far too much unexplained, offering no hint at all of how the world of the film came to be, or of how it functions.

When the film opens we find the world already on the brink of war, yet we are given no idea of what the opposing forces might be fighting about. The viewer is repeatedly asked simply to take for granted the film’s world-view, something which becomes progressively more difficult as the story unfolds.

We are consequently left to infer that somehow, between 1929 and 1940, the entire world divided itself up into two superpowers: the Empire of the Atlantic States and the Federation of European States; the former consisting of North and South America, China, Japan, some other parts of Asia, and maybe the Soviet Union (its colouration on the world map suggests it may have opted out), and the latter of everywhere else.

Of course, in practical terms “everywhere else” is irrelevant. I’ve complained before about films in which they say “the world” when they mean America, and say “America” when they mean New York, but High Treason takes that tendency to new heights, or depths, by offering in actuality:

The Empire of Atlantic States (EAS) = America = New York
The Federation of European States (FES) = England = London

As for the rest of us, we just don’t matter.

In this spirit, we are left to draw our own conclusions about the location of the border at which the first incident occurs; but since the people in the car are evidently smuggling bootleg liquor, we can only assume that they are crossing from Canada into the US.

(High Treason actually makes quite a few accurate predictions about “the future”, mostly in the area of technology, but having Prohibition persisting to 1940 despite the complete geo-political rearrangement of the world isn’t one of them.)

The border incident has immediate and serious repercussions, with each side blaming the other and resenting the other’s attitude, and the world edging closer to war. The EAS believes that the FES is creating these incidents in order to give itself an excuse to attack, and begins to contemplate a pre-emptive strike.

However, the governments of the FES and the EAS are not the only political voices in the world, where a third powerful entity exists in the form of the World League of Peace. It is the belief of the Peace League that professional agitators are responsible for most of the incidents, and its representatives work to diffuse the escalating tensions while the organisation seeks proof of its assertions.

The Peace League is High Treason’s elephant in the living-room. Still less than with the FES and EAS are we given any hint of how this organisation came into existence, how it is structured, how it functions, or whether it has any genuine political power, as opposed to simple numerical mass. There are representatives of the Peace League in the cabinets of both world governments—were they elected, or just invited? Neither of the world governments wants to listen to the Peace Leaguers, yet it seems they are sufficiently powerful that the governments can’t afford to ignore them, either. Even at the height of the international crisis, when Dr Seymour demands it, he is immediately granted access to the President of the FES.

Yet this vagueness is ultimately less of a problem than the fact that, quite without internal justification or any hint of the source of their moral authority, the Peace League is invariably presented as right about everything—and not just right, but RIGHT.

And, hey! – I’m perfectly happy to have the pacifists in the right—or even THE RIGHT—but I’d like to know why they’re right, and “just cos” isn’t going to cut it; particularly not considering the direction in which this story ultimately goes.

(Uncomfortably enough, the fine print in this film eventually reveals that Dr Seymour is known as the Vicar-General of the Peace League.)


No less vague, but perhaps more intriguing (at least to this reviewer), is the role played within the Peace League by women, who make up the majority of its members and consequently represent a significant political force in the world. It is fascinating to consider this point in light of the fact that when Noel Pemberton Billing wrote his play, women in the UK did not even have full voting rights; something they had only just achieved when High Treason went into production.

And yet— And yet—

One of the most consistently interesting, albeit frequently infuriating, aspects of futuristic science fiction is the attitude displayed towards women and women’s roles, and in this respect High Treason shows itself every bit as confused and contradictory as we might anticipate. Though, as we have seen, it presents women theoretically as a vital and powerful force in the world, it cannot refrain from sexualising and trivialising every aspect of the story that deals with women in actuality. Take, for example, the scene in which Michael Deane visits Evelyn at the London headquarters of the Peace League: as soon as A MAN shows himself, the female employees en masse stop working and start simpering and fluttering and primping and generally behaving like a bunch of vacuous airheads.

But even this pales beside the film’s treatment of Evelyn herself. She may be second-in-command of the world’s third most powerful political entity, but that’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t be given an opportunity to leer at her (through frosted glass, anyway) courtesy of one of cinema’s earliest Gratuitous Shower Scenes.

However, High Treason turns out to be an Equal Opportunity Confusion sort of film, since gives us a central male character who is simultaneously its romantic lead and – at least given his position as the face of the military complex – its villain.


However, although High Treason is naturally rather ambivalent about Michael, the scary thing is that I’m not sure his most irritating qualities are intended negatively; too many films of this era have leading men who behave exactly like him. Michael is a smirker and a sneerer, a dispenser of patronising smiles and a dismisser of any beliefs in contradiction to his own. Consequently, his relationship with Evelyn is beyond inexplicable; Romeo and Juliet have got nothing on these two. I suppose we can accept that Michael might be interested in Evelyn, since it is made painfully clear that he takes neither her beliefs nor her activities with the Peace League seriously (his attitude is very much, “Don’t bother your pretty little head about it”), and that from his point of view they constitute no barrier; but conversely, Michael represents everything that Evelyn is most opposed to, and it is quite unbelievable that she would involve herself with him.

Here, by way of illustration, is the opening conversation between our lovers:

Evelyn:  “Michael, isn’t this war-talk dreadful!”
:  “The only dreadful thing is that I can’t kiss you by wireless – yet!”

That reference to “kissing by wireless” highlights one of the most interesting aspects of High Treason: how often it correctly anticipates technological advances. Clearly one of the main reasons that this film was produced was the opportunity it offered to create a vision of “the London of the future”.


Its opening sequences show a London filled with skyscrapers, with a developed Thames crossed by new bridges and filled with water traffic; and though no-one has a flying car, the air is filled with small personal aircraft, including helicopters and dirigibles. It must be said, however, that the model-work through which all this is accomplished is more imaginative than convincing.

But perhaps of more interest to the modern viewer is High Treason’s fairly accurate prediction of the intrusion of technology into everyday life. Gadgets are everywhere in this film—particularly communication gadgets. Television was in development while this film was in production (the British got there, too, though the real war put paid to it for quite some time), and High Treason has the technology taken for granted.

(And what’s on the TV we see? Why, women’s volley-ball, of course! What else?)

A touch more worryingly, there is a ubiquitous government broadcasting system with video-screens all over the place; while in Dr Seymour’s office in the Peace League headquarters there is an electronic news ticker. Meanwhile, Michael and Evelyn communicate via what is, to all intents and purposes, Skype; we note with amusement that this film predicts the dodgy internet connection, too. (Albeit that telecommunication is still facilitated, or not, through operators at an exchange.)

Michael uses his video-phone to inform – not ask – Evelyn that she will be dining with him that evening. She objects that she’s busy, what with the looming international crisis, and all, but he naturally dismisses this as of no consequence and announces that he’ll pick her up at seven-thirty.

This conversation is watched with disapproval at both ends, with both participants warned that their relationship can only end in disaster. Evelyn’s voice of doom is Dr Seymour, and while for the most part he is a sanctimonious bore, here we can only agree with him.


Michael’s nay-saying subordinate, meanwhile, highlights another interesting point of confusion in this film, by accusing the Peace League of being unpatriotic. I’m not sure how an international organisation with no political affiliation (and/or its own international political presence) can actually be “unpatriotic”, but the use of the word draws our attention to the fact that the world’s vocabulary hasn’t shifted to match its new arrangements. In particular, the President of the EAS seems oblivious to the fact that he is representing half the planet, reacting to the perceived FES threat with a promise to defend “our beloved country”.

Michael himself, meanwhile, pleads “patriotism” when confronted by Dr Seymour’s grim head-shaking. This awkward conversation between the two men takes place while Evelyn is getting ready for her evening out, and is interspersed with cutaways to Evelyn’s even more awkward shower scene…though the three-part walk-through shower is kind of nifty.

Meanwhile, international tensions continue to escalate, with both sides rattling their sabres loudly. The Council of the EAS meets to debate their next action; and while the Peace League delegate (a woman) pleads for calm, another member of the Council conjures up a horrifying vision of aerial warfare and death from above…

…and here, I suspect, we may have the real reason that the censorship boards on the American east coast reacted so badly to High Treason. (The film was apparently well-received on the west coast.) These days we tend to take it for granted that in any kind of science fiction or disaster movie involving America, New York will inevitably take a pounding – in fact, we’d probably be surprised and perhaps a little disgruntled if it didn’t – but in 1929, had it been done before? If High Treason was in fact the first film to include such a sequence, the violent local response is more understandable; particularly considering that this was not even an American film.


Be that as it may, as the Council delegate speaks, the film shows us New York being gassed and bombed, its skyscrapers collapsing and many being civilians killed… “And that,” he concludes bitterly, “is modern war.” The President responds by demanding full mobilisation powers.

At this point the audience is made aware that the Peace League is – of course – RIGHT in its contention that a group of agents provocateurs is responsible for most of the incidents that have brought the world to flashpoint. The intervention of the League has also prevented the border conflict from being the triggering incident that the conspirators were hoping for, so they begin to make plans for an attack beyond the capacity of diplomacy: the bombing of the Channel Tunnel…

(And yes, High Treason got that right, too. Of course, the Chunnel had been a subject of debate for more than one hundred years when the film was made, and it took another seventy after that before it came to fruition; so we can’t give the film too much credit for that touch. Oddly, in 1935, Maurice Elvey would direct the English-language version of The Tunnel.)

Though let down by some inadequate model-work, the bombing sequence is still horrifying, with the train passengers trapped in the wreckage as the waters pour in through the rent in the carriage. It is also an early (or again, the earliest?) example of film-makers absorbing the dictum that many people get more upset over violence to animals than violence to humans: much of the lead-up to the bomb going off is devoted to one female passenger and her adorable little puppy…

The bombing of the Channel Tunnel is dramatically contrasted with Michael and Evelyn’s visit to a nightclub, where the men and women enact an extremely peculiar and jerky dance to the music provided by a mostly-automated one-man band, the floorshow consists of two women fencing (one cops it right in the boob), and private rooms are provided where couples can withdraw and, uh, canoodle.


Meanwhile, “the hideous Channel outrage” is immediately declared to be the work of agents of the Atlantic States – “Undoubtedly”, according to the President of the FES. A rapid surge towards all-out war is held up only by the intervention of the FES Peace League representative, played by – unbilled, but unmistakable – Raymond Massey, in his film debut.

The delegate counters the growing outrage by insisting that the Peace League has proof that outside agitators are responsible—but if they do, he doesn’t produce it. Instead, naturally, we’re just supposed to take his word for it. In any event, the President isn’t interested in “proof” or “evidence” or any minor detail like that. Instead he demands immediate mobilisation under “the Conscription Act of 1938”, to which all men under fifty and some women are subject.

The public announcement of the tunnel bombing – “by Atlantic agents” – and the consequent mobilisation comes while Michael and Evelyn are still at the nightclub. The gathered crowd reacts with outrage amounting to blood lust. Evelyn tries to quell their growing fury and to argue against the war that seems more inevitable every moment, insisting on the innocence of the Atlanteans and urging defiance of the mobilisation order, but the crowd is not in the mood to hear her and she is verbally and physically attacked. Evelyn must also face Michael’s call to action, as the commanding officer of the European Ministry of Air. The two part bitterly.

If you’ve guessed that High Treason’s attitude to the idea of women being conscripted is deeply confused, give yourself a gold star. The film cuts to a “Women’s Mobilisation Centre”, for one of the sequences most heavily influenced by Metropolis, as a line of the female conscripts vanishes through one doorway and emerges from another wearing highly impractical (but visually powerful) white combat gear. The officer in charge, who we take to be actually in the military, is of course a battleaxe, while the female conscripts, according to temperament, treat the whole business like a lark or a bore, more concerned about their unflattering new wardrobes than the looming prospect of war.


We learn that under certain circumstances, a conscript may be excused: if she’s married (why??), or if she is caring for a young child (maybe: but wouldn’t female conscription logically entail a national system of childcare?); and fascinatingly enough, these points are treated as two separate issues, with one young conscript excused because, while she’s not married, she does have a baby…

Meanwhile, though on the whole satisfied with the results of their activities, the agitators are still concerned about the influence of the Peace League; and they make plans to do something about it… The London headquarters of the Peace League is targeted by an aerial bombing raid; but although much damage is done, and many lives lost, both Evelyn and Dr Seymour survive.

(The way that this sequence is shot, with rapid intercutting and the use of shock close-ups, prompted one American critic to observe that Maurice Elvey had obviously been studying Battleship Potemkin as well as Metropolis.)

Without missing a beat, Dr Seymour dispatches Evelyn to the main aerodrome, to stop the deployment of the FES air-fleet. As for himself, Dr Seymour announces grimly that he is determined to prevent war—at any cost…

And as he speaks, the vote for war or peace is taking place at the Council of the FES. The vote is split ten-ten. The President, holding the casting vote, opts for war…

As it happens, Women’s Mobilisation Centre #3 adjoins the Central aerodrome, where the planes of the 1st and 2nd Bombing Fleets – Michael’s command, in other words – are maintained; so that Evelyn’s mission sends her into the heart of the group of conscripts we’ve already encountered.


It turns out that the vast majority of the conscripts are Peace Leaguers – they even wear their peace badges pinned to their uniforms – which immediately begs the question of why they showed up in the first place? Wouldn’t the Peace League have a compact with its members not to respond to mobilisation? Or, failing that, given the presumed numerical importance of the women as conscripts, wouldn’t a blanket reaction of Hell, no, we won’t go have carried more weight?

But to argue this point rationally is to risk depriving High Treason of one of the two reasons this film was made in the first place: the visually enthralling, beautifully choreographed, utterly illogical yet emotionally gripping confrontation between Evelyn and her white-clad women, and Michael and his black-clad men.

(Here indeed Maurice Elvey did imbibe the lessons of Metropolis: if your images are powerful enough, it doesn’t matter that you’re not completely making sense.)

At Michael’s order, his men level their guns at the women, who instinctively retreat. Evelyn rallies them with a cry of, “They’ll never fire on women!” – and luckily for her and her troops, none of their opponents are liberated enough to prove her wrong. A tense stand-off follows, with the women advancing hesitantly while the men, although standing their ground, begin to exchange worried looks—but both parties are interrupted by the Government Broadcasting Station, which asks everyone to stand by for an important announcement…

Back at the Council, the President proclaims his intention of making a declaration of war against the Atlantic States at midnight; it is at that moment 11.50pm. The President receives word that Dr Seymour is waiting to see him, and meets with him in his own private room—behind locked doors. The President tells Dr Seymour that he believes he has the support of the people of the European States, in spite of the great influence of the Peace League. He adds that there is a need for unity, and begs Dr Seymour to make a speech to that effect.


In the course of this conversation, the President admits that his was the casting vote for war; that he could have voted for peace, but did not. At this, Dr Seymour agrees to make a broadcast… The President, although suspicious, knows that Seymour’s support could alter everything and pave his way, and opens up the broadcast system for him—allowing him to speak to the entire world…

…but what he says is not exactly what the President was hoping for, though possibly what he feared: instead of announcing his support for the declaration of war, he announces that the European States have agreed to submit to arbitration in order to avert war…

At this, the infuriated President draws a gun and fires—hitting the module and ending the visual component of the broadcast. It is not entirely clear if that is what he was aiming at. There is, however, no doubt whatsoever what Dr Seymour is aiming at when he, too, draws a gun, turns, and fires…

He then returns to the module and announces that there will be no war…

At the aerodrome, this announcement does not have quite the expected result. Michael and his fellow-flyers show every sign of trying to launch their squadron anyway, while the women go back to trying to make it impossible by surrounding the planes. Michael then openly orders his men to fire upon the women, only to have them flatly refuse.

Michael, however, persists in what now boils down basically to a battle of wills against Evelyn. (We are given no hint of what he intends to do if he does get his squadron into the air; there has, after all, been no declaration of war.) As the men push towards the planes, one of the women produces a grenade from somewhere or other, and thrusts it into Evelyn’s hands…


As Evelyn wields the object, the men obey her and move away from the planes. Even Michael starts to back up; we infer that he has finally learned to take her seriously. In fact—though the viewer never believes that this is not an empty threat on Evelyn’s part, it is clear that Michael thinks her capable of following through.

One of the soldiers, an older man, then tries to take a shot at Evelyn, only to have his arm knocked up by a younger colleague. Curiously, this abortive attack galvanises the women into fresh action; they surge around the planes, forming themselves into a solid barrier.

The matter is still in the balance when Michael receives a telegram ordering him to stand down. He concedes, calling his men off.

(Twice during this sequence Evelyn leads the other women in the Peace League’s anthem, “March On To Peace”, which was a real song written for the sound version of the film.)

Back at the Council, a panicky group has finally succeeded in cutting through the solid, locked doors of the President’s private room. Inside, they find the President dead and an unrepentant Dr Seymour, who insists quietly that it was the only way… As he is placed under arrest, news breaks on the electronic ticker that the Atlantic States have accepted what they call the Europeans’ “noble gesture” and withdrawn their own ultimatum, agreeing to arbitration. And so war is averted…

Now—it is of course possible, even within a pacifist framework, to make a cogent argument for the sacrifice of one life to save the lives of millions. The problem is, High Treason makes no such argument, or indeed any other. Instead, as always, it simply assumes that Dr Seymour is RIGHT. Even in this.


But let’s look at this a little more closely. Yes, as it happens, Dr Seymour’s drastic actions do indeed avert war—but he could not have been sure in advance that this would be the outcome. The Atlanteans, after all, might just have easily told the Europeans where to stick their arbitration. But the film has no interest in any such moral ambiguity, and refuses to admit for a moment that any outcome other than the one anticipated by Dr Seymour was possible.

(I’ll give them this, though: there’s no sign of a God complex. In the wake of the shooting Dr Seymour is panicky and distraught, although not remorseful.)

And so instead of any debate on the issue, which might have been interesting, High Treason concludes with Dr Seymour being tried for murder and condemned to be executed: a process presented in all seriousness as his journey through martyrdom to sainthood.

Gimme a break.

(In the real world, the biased and hostile instruction of the jury by the judge hearing the case would guarantee Dr Seymour a re-trial. The obedient jury, meanwhile, subsequently spends all of five minutes considering its verdict. Whether these touches were consciously added injustices, components of Seymour’s martyrdom, I’m not sure.)

In spite of its ambitions and the pushing of the more jingoistic critics of the time, High Treason failed to impress audiences of 1929, who attended the film for its spectacle and its sound component – definitely not for its politics – but lost interest in it as soon as newer, shinier objects came along.

Still, in its very Britishness the film is engaging, particularly when you compare it on one hand to its German model, and on the other to the contemporaneous Just Imagine, America’s equally bizarre but far less serious attempt to film “the future”. You can’t really call High Treason a good film, but – in turns ridiculous, infuriating, hilarious and arresting – it is certainly never less than interesting. A proper restoration and general re-release of this idiosyncratic and unusual film is long overdue.


Footnote:  Since I originally wrote this, the BFI site has made available for online viewing a copy of the surviving sound version of High Treason—but only for people in the UK, alas. If anyone feels like watching it and reporting back, it would be very much appreciated.

America’s most pressing concerns, looking to the future in 1929? War and television.

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8 Responses to High Treason (1929)

  1. RogerBW says:

    Love the Zeppelin in that first poster, even if it is irrelevant to the film.

    I think one could sum up the quality of prediction of the future with that car that crosses the border in the opening scene: on the one hand, it’s clearly much more streamlined than pretty much any actual car of 1929. On the other hand, it still has exposed openwork front wheels.

    What I’ve got of the general attitude to women in this period – obviously there were exceptions – is that once they’re married they’re regarded as inseparable parts of their husbands (thus the need to abandon any career), but before then they are more or less independent beings.

    Ooh, they did love their Significant Not-A-Halo-Honest moments, didn’t they?

    Alas, the BFI is so keen on stopping nasty evil downloaders (of this film which anyone involved in is now dead) that their player won’t work with any browser to which I have access (I run fairly aggressive anti-spyware). The silent version does seem to be on YouTube: video id Pb8EEDQOAGU .


    • lyzmadness says:

      Not to mention the aqueducts of THE FUTURE!!

      Mmmm…and they were pretty intent upon cutting short that independence by getting them married ASAP…

      Subtlety is not this film’s strong point. 😀

      Oh, shame.


  2. Bruce Probst says:

    “the reasons given were that High Treason “tends to incite to crime” and was “inhuman””

    Er … “salacious” and “obscene” I get. (Not that I agree, just that I can follow how some people might feel that way.) I suppose that considering our modern fears of video games inciting violence in our youth we can see how someone might feel a film could “incite crime”. (Not sure what crimes in particular they were concerned with, though.) But “inhuman”? By what standards is THAT measured?

    “the exceedingly strange Noel Pemberton Billing”

    You’re not kidding! The man’s Wikipedia page reads like it was randomly generated in a role-playing game. He seems to have been a genuine mad genius (well, at least, highly eccentric if not actually mad). And it can be claimed that he was (very indirectly) responsible for the Spitfire! I mean … wow.

    So the “Empire of Atlantic States” is ruled by a … President? And their major geopolitical area of influence is centred around the Pacific? Um ….

    “only for people in the UK, alas”

    You may care to invest in a VPN product to get around such limitations. There are plenty to choose from.


    • Eric Balzer says:

      Well, “all’s fair in love and war” I guess as the Federation of European States is dominated geographically and population-wise by Africa, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Canada and Australia.


    • lyzmadness says:

      You find a lot of wacky stuff once you start looking into local censorship rulings but this is one of the best! 🙂

      Yes, I started adding more about ol’ Noel when I was writing this, but then where would you stop?

      I’m trying not to invest in any more doo-hickeys at the moment, but yeah, I’ll keep that in mind.


  3. Richard says:

    I couldn’t help thinking as I read the intro that this movie was made a few decades too early. I immediately replaced the two sides with the Warsaw Pact and NATO, with the UN taking the place of the Peace League. And that incident at the checkpoint? In the early days of the Berlin Wall (when it wasn’t much more than a glorified fence), shooting almost started at Checkpoint Charlie when a Western diplomat and his wife wanted to cross into East Berlin to see an opera, but they didn’t have their papers in order…..


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