This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.
In late 1918 a film was in preparation that was to rewrite the history books – a British picture, running almost as long as Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, bringing to life the political career of the country’s prime minister, the full ferocity of the war and the experience of ordinary people caught up in these momentous events. It was called The Life Story of David Lloyd George. Nothing as ambitious had been tried before and it was ready for launch immediately after Armistice Day. There was even a deal in place with Carl Laemmle to splash it across the American continent.
Then late one afternoon in January 1919, a lawyer arrived at the offices of Ideal Film Company, the film’s producers, handed over £20,000 in £1,000 notes and drove away with the only negative and positive copies of the film. It was never seen again by its makers, its writer, the respected historian Sir Sidney Low, or its director Maurice Elvey. No audience saw it at the time and the film became a lost treasure.
But you can see it at the Barbican on 17 February, 2013.
The story behind these extraordinary events is still murky, but what we do know is this. Towards the end of 1918, as the film was nearing completion, the owners of Ideal Film, the Rowson brothers, issued a writ for libel against John Bull magazine, edited by the virulent xenophobe Horatio Bottomley, which had accused them of being German sympathisers (largely on account of their original name, Rosenbaum). At the same time, word came down from Lloyd George himself that he was unhappy with the film going ahead, this despite the fact that the producers had secured his involvement before shooting began. These two events are almost certainly linked, but the outcome is still shocking to this day.
The £20,000 paid to Ideal represented the out-of-pocket costs of the film not appearing – the greater costs, to Elvey, to lead actor Norman Page, whose Lloyd George is a phenomenal performance of nuance and understatement, even to the future of the British film industry, are incalculable. As Kevin Brownlow wrote on seeing the film in 1996, “… had the Life Story of David Lloyd George been released, Elvey might even have been hailed ‘The Griffith of Britain’ … certainly the film would have been placed beside the best work from America and the continent and it would not have been entirely overshadowed.”
So how did Brownlow come to see it? In 1994 the Welsh Film Archive in Aberystwyth took delivery of 16 cans of film found on the farm of Lord Tenby, grandson of Lloyd George. These turned out to contain 137 unedited rolls of nitrate film, which, after two years of painstaking restoration and reconstruction work, finally hit a screen before an audience in North Wales in April 1996 – I was the pianist on that occasion, unable to believe my luck.
For Lloyd George is a phenomenal film, a history that plays out like a biopic, a time-capsule that, at its best, still holds a modern audience with extraordinary power. Like the best biopics it hops nimbly between the big picture and the small, creating a fascinating portrait of Lloyd George within an entirely convincing political and domestic world. It has massive scenes, including a riot at Birmingham Town Hall with nearly a thousand extras; and quiet, contemplative scenes informed by Page’s charismatic dignity. Best of all, it still has the power to move, as much as it would have done with those audiences of 1919 who were destined never to see it. I urge you to see this “lost” masterpiece on its only London showing, and be prepared to have your preconceptions about British cinema, the first world war and silent cinema acting overturned.
The National Library of Wales holds more information on this extraordinary film and its story, if not the solution to the mystery of the film’s disappearance. Here’s my take on it – the film turned up among Lloyd George’s own possessions and, as was common knowledge at the time, £20,000 was about the going rate for a baronetcy …
The Life Story of David Lloyd George screens at the Barbican on 17 February 2013 at 4pm with an introduction by Ian Christie and live accompaniment by Neil Brand. You can book tickets online here. If you can’t make the London screening, the film is also available on DVD with Neil Brand’s score. You can read more, and watch some clips from the film here. To read even more, you can buy the excellent book edited by David Berry and Simon Horrocks: David Lloyd George: the Movie Mystery.