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High Treason
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by Jay Seaver

"Journey forward in time, to the far off year of 1940..."
4 stars

I must admit that I have a soft spot for old sci-fi. I love looking at how previous generations envisioned the future and threw themselves into depicting these visions. I feel a twinge of annoyance whenever someone disparages that kind of movie for how it "gets the future wrong" or looks fake compared to new visions that is only equaled by my reaction to when another professes to love them for being "campy" or "cheesy". The first reaction comes of being spoiled and/or ignorant, but the latter is just patronizing. "High Treason" may be silly, but that's because it was kind of silly in 1928, too.

The movie posits that in the far off year of 1940, "United Europe" and the "Atlantic States" share an uneasy truce. As the film opens, an incident at a border crossing sets the nations at high alert. This is of great concern to the World Peace League, headed by the renowned Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), ably assisted by his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume). Despite her dedication to the cause, Evelyn is currently dating a soldier, Air Force Major Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas), although that alliance may fracture should it come to war. What our heroes in London don't realize, however, is that the situation is being manipulated behind the scenes by a group of arms manufacturers in New York.

A great deal of the fun of this movie is looking at the 1940 that the filmmakers imagined in the roaring twenties, full of skyscrapers, blimps, television phones and ladies wearing form-fitting jumpsuits for a night on the town. It is not meant to be a prediction of the future, of course, but an allegorical one; later generations would use "the year two thousand", as shorthand for a time by which there would be great change but which the audience or their children would live to see even when it was fairly close. The design isn't wholly unreasonable, really, when you look at it from the perspective of a generation that had seen cities sprout like weeds in the American West and technologies like airplanes, automobiles, radios, and even motion pictures become ubiquitous since the turn of the century. 1940 London isn't a utopia, but it's a pleasant and exciting place to live, and the realization of it is at time impressive - the model work is crude by today's standards, with visible strings and crude detail, but other bits of effects are impressive. I admit to spending some time racking my brain at how they got the video phones to work in 1928: This is before the blue screen, and the devices weren't always wall-mounted to enable the use of rear projection. If it's matte work, it's darned impressive early use of it.

Speaking of being ahead of the curve, High Treason was actually shot as talkie, although silent, intertitled prints were also produced for the majority of theaters that had not yet installed sound. When the silent version that was screened, it leads to some odd moments - a nightclub scene where young people dance to unheard music; demonstrators breaking into "the peace song" which is just not effective as intertitles. Despite that, the silent version is better; this film is in the category of early sound films that filled every scene with constant chatter that is often fairly insipid (sometimes a paraphrased card "sounds" better than flatly spoken words), and the awkwardness there throws everything else that is a little off into sharper relief while a silent gives a little more room for artistic license.

The cast is solid enough (though more so in the silent version than the sound one), given that they're basically playing types: Jameson Thomas is upright and honorable as the soldier who sympathizes with the Peace League but took an oath; Benita Hume is a pretty flapper who has still absorbed her father's hardline stance on right and wrong. Humberston Wright is exactly what the film needs as a man whose very passion can prove to be his undoing - strong and authoritarian, but tunnel-visioned to the point where he might start talking about ends justifying the means.

Of course, as much as High Treason comes down on the side of the pacifists in its words, when it comes down to actions, it does seem to like, well, action. The opening border-crossing incident takes a while to sort itself out, but once it does, generates some good suspense, and the terrorist attack on the Peace League's headquarters yields some nice destruction of miniatures. At other times, the audience can't help but feel that director Maurice Elvey is more interested in showing pretty girls than high ideals, or find that the meetings of the munitions manufacturers are much more thrilling than those of the protesters. Maybe Noel Pemberton-Billing's original play was more honest in its desire to show peaceful means working, but L'Estrange Fawcett's screenplay gives the audience more spectacle and more excitement, even if the message gets a little lost in translation.

Or maybe not completely lost; pacifist doesn't necessarily mean passive. The film's ideas are noble enough even for this day and age, and it does a better job than most of making the presentation of those ideas exciting and entertaining. Sure, it's not as slick as the films that would follow it, but it makes good use of what it's got, with the result being more enjoyable than many later films with more resources.

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originally posted: 01/15/06 02:32:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Boston SciFi Film Festival For more in the 2016 Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/08/16 Amy I’ve been surfing online more than three hours as of late, yet I never found any attenti 5 stars
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