As Ian Christie said in his introduction, not many of the audience at London’s Barbican Centre would have seen a British silent film from 1918 before and certainly not one of this scale and sophistication.
We were gathered to watch a special screening of Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George with live accompaniment from Neil Brand and an introduction not just from the eminent Mr Christie but also John Reed from the Welsh Film Archive. Mr Reed not only played a major role in restoring the film; he found it after a mysterious disappearance for almost 80 years. Thrillingly, because the film had never been seen, it is pretty much in mint condition – this is cinema as it looked in 1918, no digital restoration, just the impression left by the light on the nitrate.
|LG gave a five hour speech in Commons for the 1909 budget|
Whatever the political machinations, they can only add to the interest in what is a major historical document - a record of Britain during the Great War and which showed, like Birth of a Nation, that some issues remain unresolved even when consigned to “history”.
|The young solicitor|
The film is faithful to its subject and, some childhood inventions aside, uses only dialogue culled from Lloyd George’s speeches and debates. This helps to side-step the pitfalls many subsequent biopics encounter in attempting to convert character and events into neat dialogue…
Elvey’s commitment to realism extended to huge set pieces re-enacting a number of LG’s major speeches and featuring – literally – a cast of thousands. As Ian Christie pointed out, it would be a long time before any British director again operated on this scale. It’s particularly effective for the Birmingham Town Hall riot when LG’s anti-Boer War stance almost got him strung up: the streets are overflowing with extras… at least I think they were extras!
Written by Sidney Low the film covers Lloyd George’s life in meticulous factual detail – what else could you do with a living subject - from his humble beginnings to the Great War victory that seemed sure to guarantee his lasting reputation. Up to this point (Marconi Affair aside) LG had been largely sure-footed but there were to be later complications...
|The great orator|
|Man arrested for stealing bread...|
There follows scenes of LG’s passionate debates in Commons (one of which got him suspended for a week) along with the public meetings which stirred the electorate as well as enraging them.
|LG is greeted by the ghosts of PM's past... Disraeli on left.|
|"The workhouse doors open..."|
LG takes over as Prime Minister in 1916 and helps to unify the Allies who are soon to include the USA. The films propagandist agenda tips the hat to all involved parties but this was wartime and audiences need sense to be made of the deaths of millions. LG ensures the appointment of General Foch as commander in chief of the allied forces and this is the key appointment as the German forces were finally forced into surrender.
|Prime Minister David Lloyd George|
Amongst the supporting cast is the future Mrs Hitchcock, a teenage Alma Reville, as LG’s daughter Megan and there’s also a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Peggy Carlisle a Liverpudlian lass who played Mary in Hindle Wakes… I think anyway!
|Peggy Carlisle cameo?|
His score is featured on the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales DVD which the Barbican had kindly placed on sale in their Level 3 Shop (still there if you’re quick). In addition to a 16 page booklet there’s a second disc featuring an introduction from Philip Madoc along with interviews with Kevin Brownlow as well as Mr Brand. It’s also available direct from the Archive where you can also find extensive clips and more details. It is absolutely essential for all aficionados of early British cinema.
|Norman Page and Alma Reville with some odd "ducks"|
Also, if Birth of a Nation revived interest in certain unpleasant political strands in the US, isn’t it possible that Elvey’s film may have played a similar role in cementing the altogether more positive achievements of liberalism at a time when it was being compromised. The Liberal Party never recovered from the need for Conservative support in the latter years of LG’s premiership and they were soon out-flanked by the Labour Party. Could this film have helped LG’s party to stay more true to themselves?
Just a thought. You can’t buck a long term trend in political culture with a mere film… can you?
*Thanks to Lucy Dee, “Miss Elvey”, for that snippet!
|LG working hard with his secretary|