The Life Story of David Lloyd George
Coe, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
JONATHAN COE FILM
The Life Story of David Lloyd George (no certificate)
There's something particularly fascinating, peculiarly romantic about the idea of "lost" films. Think of the ten-hour version of von Stroheim's Greed, the missing reels of The Magnificent Ambersons, Peter Sellers' unseen war movie The Blockhouse or - the one for which I've always felt a special yearning - the hour of spectacular footage excised from Billy Wilder's masterpiece, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Films are the dreams we share with one another, our mutual unconscious; which means that lost films, perhaps, are like those tantalising dreams that disappear from memory just as we are waking - the ones we always imagine to have been perfect.
Few films can have been more decisively lost, or more completely recovered, than The Life Story of David Lloyd George, a two-and-a-half-hour biopic of the great Welsh radical, which this week receives its premiere a mere 78 years after its intended West End opening. Made in 1918 during the closing months of the first world war, this hagiographic account of the Prime Minister's early years was mysteriously withdrawn after a magazine article by the notoriously chauvinistic MP Horatio Bottomley alleged that its producers, Harry and Simon Rowson, were German sympathisers. Although Bottomley was successfully sued for libel, a cloud of suspicion seemed to have gathered around the film, and the government decided to suppress it, paying [pounds]20,000 in cash for the negative and the only copy. The negative then gathered dust for more than three-quarters of a century, and was only recently discovered in the attic of Lloyd George's grandson, Lord Tenby. It has now been fully restored by the Wales Film and Television Archive.
The film historian Kevin Brownlow claims 'that, if released in 1918, The Life Story of David Lloyd George "would have changed entirely the way British film was regarded". It's easy to see why. Visually it is spectacular. Lloyd George grew up near Criccieth on the Lleyn Peninsula, in one of the loveliest parts of North Wales, and the first half hour of the film abounds in strong pastoral images, as we are treated to numerous shots of the would-be MP (played by West End actor Norman Page) strolling the mist-enshrouded foothills of Snowdonia while reading Shakespeare and brooding on political injustice. The composition of these scenes, with their shameless idealising of the young hero, anticipates the Alpine films of Arnold Franck and thereby, indirectly, the proto-fascist cinema of Leni Riefenstahl.
Later, there are some genuinely epic set-pieces. …