It’s no doubt here in America, we have a fascination with the British Aristocracy (considering the entire nation is crossing off calendar days until the arrival of the next season of Downton Abbey). But often times, the real stories are even more interesting the created ones. Case in point: Lord Edward Montagu. A child inheritor of a 7,000 acre estate, one-time youngest Member of Parliament, and in 1954, at age 25, the focus of a landmark trial for homosexual offenses. “The Montagu Case,” as it has come to be known, although it sent the accused to jail, represented a pivotal moment in civil rights because afterwards the British government decided it would no longer try cases between consenting adults, essentially decriminalizing homosexuality in all but name. But Montagu’s story doesn’t end there. Released from prison for good behavior, he reinvents himself by boldly opening his family home to the public as a tourist attraction, staging spectacle after spectacle, parading around with movie and music stars, and gathering together a collection of motor vehicles to establish Britain’s first motor museum.
“He starts telling me all these amazing parts of his life, the roller coaster of his story, and I just found myself asking how had I never heard of this person?” says director Luke Korem, whose film LORD MONTAGU is released today on VOD platforms. Korem stumbled into his initial interview while doing some commercial advertising work outside of his Austin, TX home. A client came to him one day and said ‘I have an interesting uncle, his name is Lord Montagu and he lives in a castle, would you be interested in going to England and interviewing him?’ Korem jumped at the chance and found his history fascinating, especially Montagu’s place in gay rights, which was something the family were initially hesitant to talk about. “I come to find out the Montagu family had remained quiet about it,” Korem says, “it was something that they were very sensitive to, and didn’t really want to talk publicly about, but I was able to gain their trust.” The whole process took a year, and then four years to make the film and get it out to the world and tell Montagu’s fascinating story.
I had a chance to speak with Korem yesterday, when he took a break from the editing of his next feature out in Los Angeles. At one point in the film we see a wall of portraits, the pasts Lords of Beaulieu. Korem’s film plays almost like Lord Edward Montagu’s portrait, capturing his very modern life in a very modern way. “I felt a very strong sense of responsibility in making the film,” the director says, “I really respect the fact that through thick and thin Montagu’s goal was to pass on his family history that he inherited — this castle, this estate. Throughout being sent to jail, and no one wanting anything to do with him, he was such an entrepreneur. He was coming up with new ideas to reach his goal.” This included staging car races on his estate lawn, selling paint in national advertising campaigns, and in general becoming a public figure.
His showmanship basically wiped out any ‘foul taste’ of his ‘youthful indiscretions,’ but it is that time of his life that makes the story important, and really, unheard. “His kids learned about the trial and all the details when their dad wrote his autobiography,” says Korem, “Lord Montagu gave the book to his kids and said ‘Read this, this is what happened to me.’ So that’s how difficult it was for him to talk about it.” In fact, what Montagu was tried for was “conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons,” the same charge used against Oscar Wilde, and he protested his innocence to the end. After public opinion turned on the prosecutors, who were seen as witch-hunting for high profile convictions, a committee recommended a change in the law, which ten years later finally happened, overturning The Buggery Act of 1533 finally in 1967. This history is not glossed over in the documentary, even if most of the family seems reticent to talk about it. I asked Korem how Montagu is remembered in Britain today, “I’m 32,” he says, “so our generation doesn’t really know about it, the older generation absolutely remembers Lord Montagu, he was a household name.” In fact, he and his crew often found themselves in a pub after a shoot, discussing Montagu, and the locals would say “the nastiest things, because they didn’t know what happened. They just know rumors.” This was actually part of the director’s reason for wanting to make the film: “I actually told some of the family that, [saying]‘it’s really important that we find out everything we can, and are truthful about it, and open about it, because people will respect you for that, and it’s important that we set the record straight.”
Still, this is only one part of Montagu’s story. “He’s accepted the fact that he’s a critical part of gay history,” Korem says, “but what he wanted to be known for was his ingenuity in opening the estate to the public, that was really his goal in life, and this other part just happened to find him.” This offered a major challenge in making the film, Montagu has different parts of his life that have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
How do you mold it into being a fluid narrative? “After prison he just doesn’t talk about it,” the director says, “and you would want to know, what’s the follow-up to that, what happened there? And the fact is he just tried to make people forget about it.” Korem found his answer somewhat by unfortunate chance. Although the project began as an interview with Lord Edward Montagu himself, as they got deeper into the editing process, the director decided that the current Lord Montagu may not be the best person to tell his own story. Although he was still very sharp and engaging and welcoming throughout the process, after several strokes and being in his late eighties, Lord Montagu no longer sounds like the man the film attempts to capture. “In the film you get to experience the man himself, he was so energetic,” Korem says, “I just felt like his interview didn’t well represent him.” Instead, Korem utilizes selections from Montagu’s autobiography written ten years ago, and read by a narrator (Oliver Tobias). So the film plays much like a book, with each section a separate chapter, and the filmmaker can ‘turn the page’ on a time in Montagu’s life, just as the man himself did.
Another choice the filmmaker made was to tell much of the story through the eyes and words of the people around Lord Montagu, which meant a lot of interviews, with a lot of people that were very hard to get to. “It was a lot of research, a lot of finding who knows what,” says Korem, “and then we would reach out to the Montagu family if we wanted to talk to other aristocrats.” People like Prince Michael of Kent, a member of the royal family, (and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II), an avid car enthusiast and current president of the Royal Automotive Club. “We had asked the Montagus to write to him,” the director says, “and he wrote to us and said ‘I agree, you can come interview me at Kensington Palace.’ You had to go through several different loopholes to get access to these people.” Another interviewee is founding member and drummer of Pink Floyd, Nick Mason, who any Floyd fan knows is a car-addict. “We walked into his office,” remembers Korem, “the one thing he said was ‘I will not be interviewed behind the drum kit,’ because he’s got a drum kit in his office.” Of course he does.
However, the main focus of the film, not surprisingly, is the Montagu family themselves, Montagu’s sister, his wife and ex-wives, and his children, including the next Lord Montagu, Ralph Douglas Scott Montague. “Ralph has already taken over much of the estate, and he has his own visions for Beaulieu,” says Korem, “so the family is very much involved, they all live there. You go there today and you’re going to meet the family. They live in the house, and yet it’s a public tourist attraction. They’re really carrying the torch forward that Montagu passed onto them.”
LORD MONTAGU is a fantastic peek inside an important family, and celebrates a life well-worth celebrating. The film is insightful and hopeful portrait of a man who made a space for his estate in the new contemporary world, and helped establish what it meant to be a contemporary world along the way. Korem’s next film will deal with a hero drawn from the pack of the common folk, though one who has had to play through as much adversity. “DEALT,” he says, “is a documentary about the world’s greatest card magician and he’s completely blind.” Look for Dealt to arrive sometime next year.
LORD MONTAGU is available now on VOD and iTunes. See http://lordmontagu.com/watch/ for more information.