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Long thought lost, talking version of 1929 sci-fi thriller will screen at Anchorage International Film Festival

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 4, 2015

The 2015 Anchorage International Film Festival opens on Friday, Dec. 7, with a lineup that includes some of the newest movies from around the world.

But in the roster of contemporary, up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art filmmaking, one show seems out of place. "High Treason" is not modern. Made in England in 1929, it envisioned a future world that today is already 75 years behind the times. It probably won't pop up at Cannes or Sundance, but film buffs have eagerly noted its place in cinema history on several counts.

As it happens, that history includes Alaska. Or rather the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association.

The AMIPA connection began in 2005, said archivist and executive director Kevin Tripp. "We got a call from a guy in Washington. He had boxes of film from his ex-father-in-law. He wasn't sure what it all was, but he had reason to believe that it had some Alaska content. He'd tried to interest someone in his area, but hadn't had any luck. So he reached out to us."

When AMIPA looked over the collection, they found reels labeled "High Treason." Little was known about the movie except that it was a sci-fi drama along the lines of Fritz Lang's famed "Metropolis." Produced at a time when not all theaters had sound, it was released both as a silent film and as a talkie. The few who knew anything about it considered the talking version to be lost.

But the labels on these reels included the words "synchronous sound." The AMIPA team had stumbled onto the only known copy of the sound version of the first all-talking feature picture ever produced in England.

"We were in touch with the Library of Congress right away," Tripp said.

Hazardous material

The Library of Congress agreed to take the film, but AMIPA had to get it to them. That was no simple matter. Old film is dangerous. Cellulose nitrate, the format used for most filmmaking up to around 1950, is extremely flammable and gets less stable with age. Moving it is highly regulated by the federal government. Since the donor lived on Vashon Island, the reels couldn't just be driven across the country. It had to travel by boat, which further complicated things.

"The Library of Congress was helpful," Tripp said. "They sent us packaging material. But they said we'd have to find someone who was qualified to do the packing and the paperwork, and that's a big challenge. Traditionally, it's the hardest part of the job."

Happily, a college friend of Tripp's ran a hazardous materials training program in the Seattle area. He offered to provide the necessary hazmat training for free. Tripp went down, took the course, got his certification and headed for the donor's home.

The packed boxes, covered in warning signs, were put in a friend's Subaru and taken off the island in one of the special ferry runs designated for hazardous material transport. "The only other passenger on the ferry was a fuel truck," Tripp said.

Once on the Seattle side, he took the boxes to FedEx, not sure whether they'd accept the shipment or not. They did. The reels went first to a repository in Ohio and then to the National Audio Visual Conservation Center in Virginia, a giant facility originally built to house the U.S. Treasury Department in case of nuclear war.

By 2014, the Library of Congress had restored both the visual and audio components of the film. But there was another hurdle before "High Treason" could receive what is probably its Alaska debut at the AIFF. The Library of Congress restoration was done in 35 mm film. But modern cinema uses digital formats. Tripp doesn't know of a theater in Alaska that still has the old projector technology.

Again, luck was on his side. One of the first screenings of the restored film (there haven't been many) took place as part of the British Film Institute's sci-fi series in fall 2014. For that event they showed the sound and silent versions back to back. The BFI had transferred the movie to a Digital Cinema Package and cheerfully sent a copy to the Anchorage festival. "They even paid for the postage!" Tripp said.

Historical spotlight

The BFI screenings led to a plethora of Internet postings about the long-lost film. Several ad hoc critics made fun of the convoluted, sanctimonious yet ludicrous plot. "If your images are powerful enough, it doesn't matter that you're not completely making sense," wrote one. Others laughed at the not-too-convincing special effects, lack of backstory and stilted dialogue.

In fairness, the history of special effects is that they wow audiences only for a while before someone comes up with a better illusion. In 1929 viewers could be impressed by models that now look rinky-dink. Also, none of the actors in the film had ever spoken on camera before. No one in the business, including the directors, was exactly sure how to approach this innovation. But early reviewers praised the clear diction of the performers.

In fact, the main actors in "High Treason" all had solid stage and silent movie credentials before they made the film and went on to have respectable careers in the talkies. It's said that one reason why the studio, Gaumont-British, wanted a sound version is because Basil Gill, who plays the president, had a famously rich speaking voice.

Likewise Humberston Wright as his pacifist nemesis, Benita Hume as the pacifist's daughter and Jameson Thomas as her beau all got paid work well into the talkie era. Hume, for instance, played Jane's cousin in "Tarzan Escapes" and had a television show in the 1950s.

But the actor with the greatest career ahead of him was a newcomer with the small part of a cabinet member, Raymond Massey. After major films like "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and "East of Eden," he played the senior surgeon in the "Dr. Kildare" television series. He again played a member of the cabinet in his penultimate film, the 1973 made-for-television drama "The President's Plane is Missing."

Massey is one reason why film historians remember "High Treason." Another is the uncredited assistant director, David Lean, whose later films included "Dr. Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia."

Pixies and Skype

The film was taken from a play by Noel Pemberton-Billing. He was an aviator, politician and inventor who founded the Supermarine aviation company, which would produce the Spitfire fighter plane in World War II. A declared pacifist, the playwright nonetheless advocated aerial bombing of civilian targets in wartime, two topics that weigh heavily in the script.

The action is set in 1940. The world is divided into two great powers. The Empire of Atlantic States includes South and North America (except Canada and Alaska), Japan and China. The Federation of European States is just about everything else. A third entity, the League of Peace, has sway with both superpowers. When a border incident turns into a firefight, the drums of war start beating and unscrupulous weapons manufacturers surreptitiously crank up the volume. Women are mobilized for combat -- in cute pixie uniforms -- but really have their hearts set on peace and face off against their male military counterparts in perhaps the best scene in the film.

The script's sexual stereotypes were a source of ridicule for critics at the time it was released and remain so now. But blustery attractive men and busty airheaded women continue to be staples of blockbuster movies. No less ridiculous is the preachiness of the thing -- another evergreen element in most of the modern movies we seem to love -- and the absence of any effort to give credible motivation to characters. People are either very good or very bad. You can tell which is which by whether they wear black or white.

What interests the modern audience, however, will be Pemberton-Billing's idea of the future. There are plenty of predictions he got wrong, like the alliances in World War II (although his map conforms with geopolitical theories that remain current), the widespread use of airships and what a car would look like in 1940.

In other ways he seems to have been prescient. The Federation of European States isn't identical to the European Union, but the similarity is palpable. It's a world where terrorist bombs go off killing citizens in major cities. A scene imagining an air attack on New York skyscrapers that only amazed viewers in 1929 will chill post-9/11 audiences.

There's a train tunnel under the English Channel. Airplanes and helicopters zip everywhere. People stare at sports on television sets and do jerky dances to canned music mechanically conjured by a mix master. Lovers exchange sweet nothings over something that looks like Skype -- and are eavesdropped on by both government and private cybersnoops.

'Salacious, obscene'

Some of the high-tech innovations in "High Treason" may still be on the way, like the bathroom of the future. We get to tour it with Hume in what And You Call Yourself a Scientist, a blog that reviews films for their scientific accuracy, calls "one of cinema's earliest Gratuitous Shower Scenes."

That scene could be why censors in Pennsylvania called the film "salacious, obscene, indecent" and banned it in that state. Concerns over gratuitous violence and the theme of the show seem to be what got it banned in New York, where censors said it "tends to incite crime."

No such controversy accompanied the release of the film elsewhere, though the studio did issue an earnest statement denying that it was a piece of Soviet propaganda when rumors arose that it had been paid for by Stalin.

(In a 1951 spy thriller also titled "High Treason," the evil saboteurs were not capitalist war profiteers but Communists.)

The films retrieved from Washington turned out to include at least one Alaska feature, Tripp said, a documentary titled "Alaska, Atlin and the Yukon." The Library of Congress already had a copy of it, so its restoration is a lower priority. Other small films in the collection had deteriorated beyond any hope of salvage.

But in the case of "High Treason," the gods of film preservation were generous. This was no run-of-the-mill print but what Tripp called a "lavender fine grain print," an intermediate copy from which the prints were made that went to theaters. Not only did the AMIPA find include the long-lost soundtrack, it also contained more detail than a theater edition could have provided.

"It had never been beat up on a projector," Tripp said. "What it was doing floating around out there is something we'll never know.

"We got lucky."

HIGH TREASON will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub as part of the Anchorage International Film Festival. Tickets are available at beartooththeatre.net.

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