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The story of Maurice Elvey's THE LIFE OF DAVID LLOYD GEORGE is amazing.
Elvey considered it his best work but, at the point where he was about to
send the camera materials and edited work print for duplication, it was
siezed by the British Liberal party who felt it might taint war time Prime
Minister Lloyd George in the coming election.
The film was believed lost till the nineties, when rusty cans discovered in the Lloyd George family attic were opened. Beautifully restored by the new Welsh film Archive, it had a world wide success, spawning a small Elvey retrospective at the Silent Film Festival at Pordenone in Italy.
Not only is the movie's appearance eighty years after its production and twenty years after the death of it's director, an amazing story but the work itself is exceptional, accepted as the best British film of it's day.
A mixture of newsreel like reconstruction - mill girls dance on the edge of the crowd as Lloyd George inspects a factory, helmet wearing bobbies hold back a rioting crowd in a frame masked to wide screen, debates with Randolph Churchill in the Chamber - and visionary tableaux - the spectre of past Prime ministers super-imposed on the entry into the office, an atrocity frozen as spike hat huns march in the background and we can forgive Elvey for the future as waves breaking viewed through a figure eight mask.
Performances, settings and the film's unfamiliar structure (compare the Thomas Ince CIVILIZATION) support the authoritative handling which still registers in the Twenty First Century. What impact would it have had at it's time of production?
Intended as a morale-booster in the wake of World War One, this
staggeringly ambitious British epic simply disappeared when Elvey and
his team were paid £20,000 by parties unknown to bury it just prior to
release. Considered lost for decades, it was found in the house of
Lloyd George's grandson more than 75 years later, and finally screened
in 1996. Such is the film's scale of ambition and level of success that
silent film scholars argue that if it had been released in 1918 as
planned, it may have altered the course of British cinema forever.
Viewed almost a century on, it's a remarkable achievement: storytelling on a grand scale. The sequence depicting a riot at Birmingham Town Hall utilises 10,000 extras, intelligently orchestrated (well, once some of them stop grinning); there are victory parades, fog-shrouded war scenes and symbolic tableaux: France's Marianne raises her sword triumphantly upon a Great War battlefield, we flash back into American history, and receive a visit from the ghost of premiers past. There are rural scenes of breathtaking bucolic beauty, and tours of wartime factories which, even if they go on a bit, offer a valuable history lesson, and provide a glimpse of Elvey himself.
Made with the blessing of Lloyd George's family, and featuring a distinctly hagiographic tone, the film begins by showing his genuine birth certificate and snapshots of his parents, shoots extensively at genuine locations, and features numerous details and anecdotes from his career, shared by friends and confidantes, alongside his notable political triumphs. From a humble background, he becomes a solicitor, before his gift for oratory finds him a place in the House of Commons, then the cabinet, and then the hot-seat. He fights for the poor, runs away from the Suffragettes like a big girl's blouse, and then inspires his nation to triumph against the empire-builders of Germany - while lamenting the human cost of the conflict - in what may be a slightly fanciful retelling of the Great War. (I also can't help but notice that the French celebrate his uplifting wartime speech in Paris by waving white handkerchiefs in the air; typical French.) Lloyd George is played, as an adult, by Norman Page, with Alma Reville - Hitchcock's wife and sometime collaborator - as his spouse, and Ernest Thesiger, the great Golden Age character actor, best-known for The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, as Joseph Chamberlain. It's Page's show, though, he's rarely off-screen and proves a charismatic screen presence, with a perma-pointing finger.
Such is its antiquity that the flaws are obvious to the modern viewer: there's little dramatic tension throughout the narrative, the scenes of ordinary people's lives being transformed by the beneficent title figure are heavy-handed in the extreme, and where the writers don't have access to speeches from the late 19th century, they're resistant to speculation, and so simply show Lloyd George speaking with no intertitles. There's also a truly baffling scene in which the film breaks off from its story about social reform to let us know that Dave enjoyed a day off and scored a bogey on the first hole of the golf course, an impressive achievement that's then expressed pictorially. Sadly, no mention is made of Lloyd George's greatest attribute; greater even than his golfing prowess. In his diaries, Tony Benn recalls how he was showing a group of students around the Strangers' Gallery at the House of Commons when he happened to mention the former prime minister. At this point he was interrupted by a very old man, who rose to his feet and announced, "Lloyd George had a prick like a donkey".
As a director, Elvey shows extraordinary promise, but also comes up short compared to, say, Griffith, due to a marked lack of close-ups. The film is rousing and frequently compelling, with an eye for a crowd scene and an ear (or another eye?) for a great line of speech-making, but it's missing the human touch that comes from photographing the face. Elvey is a whizz with a long shot and a wonder with a montage, but a film is often too aloof if you can't read people's expressions. Having said that, on one of the rare occasions when we do get a medium close-up, it's in order to view what must be the most unconvincing false beard I've ever seen. Lloyd George's dad looks like someone has affixed a doormat to his face.
For all the film's highlights - which while strung together rather episodically are great in number - stretching from little Lloyd George shaking his fist at a grown-up buying off the family furniture, to refusing to say the catechism at Sunday school, through speeches in the Commons, a genuinely funny scene about a big liar, and that huge riot, my favourite is by far the short procession sequence, tinted in red, lit by night fires and accompanied by the loveliest portion of Neil Brand's beautiful score, in which Lloyd George's supporters celebrate his election with a sign that reads, "VICTORY FOR YOUNG WALES". Shot from high above, masterfully-composed and effortlessly moving, it's the highlight of an inevitably dated but extraordinarily confident and mightily impressive landmark in British silent cinema.
"The Life Story of David Lloyd George" was made in 1918, but wasn't
distributed to the public until 1996 after it had been rediscovered and
restored by the Wales Film and Television Archive. For unclear reasons,
the subject of the biopic, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, had the
film confiscated and the producers reimbursed for production costs.
Some speculate this was a political reaction to anti-Semitism and fear
of connections being made between Lloyd George and the film's Jewish
producers. This censorship is especially odd because the film is
propagandaa fawningly uncritical and saintly portrayal of Lloyd
An opening title card states the narrative clearly, "The scenes that follow exhibit Mr. Lloyd George's early training, his strenuous and well-spent youth, his rise to political influence and fame, his vindication of popular rights and social reform, and his brilliant energy in the supreme conflict with aggressive militarism." One problem is that the film is a dry chronicling of Lloyd George's achievements. Although he lived through challenging times, as a character he's hardly ever shown struggling to overcome obstacles. Lloyd George is depicted as merely willing things done. He gives a speech and, voilà, the United Kingdom has a welfare state. Literally, scenes of him giving speeches stating his legislation are followed by scenes of citizens' lives improving from it. He orders factory owners to make munitions and, voilà, the Allies win the war. There are extended, documentary-style sequences of Lloyd George touring the factories. Thus, the film may lead one to admire his accomplishments, but they don't make him a sympathetic character. It's in the childhood scenes, where Lloyd George overcomes his father's death and matures, that the picture comes closest to offering a compelling personal obstacle. That's forfeited once the narrative starts foreshadowing the would-be-minister as comparable to biblical heroes.
The other problem is that this is a silent film about great oratory and political theatre, but, here, the filmmakers did well to overcome that disadvantage. In addition to plentiful title cards, there are many crowd scenes. Reportedly, some included thousands of extras. These include scenes of Lloyd George delivering speeches to the public and to Parliament, a nighttime scene lit by torches where people celebrate his reelection, a mob scene, "militant suffragists" fighting the police, and an army formation. In these scenes, the filmmakers' reliance on long shots pays off; otherwise, the picture suffers from having barely any medium or close-up shots. Some picturesque scenes outdoors also stand out, though, and are enhanced by tinting. On the other hand, the war scenes aren't impressivebattles seem to be fought through smoke bombs. Worse, a scene where a soldier struggles to decide between carrying his gun or rescuing a woman who's apparently in such distress that she can't walk on her own and a scene of a metaphorical tug of war are laughable. (Unrelated, there's an odd moment in the scene where a father steals bread for his family, where one of his children, seemingly unscripted, vomits. The scene continues as though it never happened.) Nevertheless, the discovery of this unique, early British biopic is welcome, and, although I wouldn't claim it a "masterpiece", like film historian Kevin Brownlow and others have, "The Life Story of David Lloyd George" was worthwhile for its pioneering mastery of managing crowd scenes to visually depict political theatre.
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