The science fiction movie High Treason was considered one of the most important films of its time, up there with Metropolis. It was also the first full-length “talkie” made in Britain, although it was released in both silent and “talkie” versions. And now, it’s finally rediscovered and restored.
For decades, only the silent version of High Treason was thought to be available, and the version with sound was believed to be lost. Until a Washington film collector came up with it, along with a bunch of other film cans. Sadly, this collector couldn’t get any film-preservation experts interested in their stash, so they ended up sending it to the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, on the grounds that there was some stuff in there involving Alaska. Then the Alaskans discovered the rare treasure included in this bequest.
Until recently, we didn’t even know much about the plot of High Treason. It’s set in the futuristic year of 1940, when—somewhat prophetically—a second World War is brewing. Based on a play by pacifist writer Noel Pemberton-Billing, the movie predicts aerial bombing of civilian targets during a war, as well as terrorist bomb attacks on American skyscrapers.
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.
The film is getting a rare screening, with its original “talkie” soundtrack, at the Anchorage International Film Festival. [ADN]