Review by Michael Jacobson
Buster Keaton, Marian Mack
Directors: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Audio: DTS HD 5.1, PCM Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Kino International
Features: See Review
Length: 78 Minutes
Release Date: November 10, 2009
"If you lose this war, don't blame me."
For me, the controversial AFI Top 100 films list lost all
credibility by failing to include even one movie by one of America’s most
imaginative and gifted filmmakers, Buster Keaton. Particularly, the omission of The
General, considered by many critics worldwide to be one of the top ten
movies ever made, almost always scoring higher rankings than any Chaplin film.
The General is a
masterpiece in many ways. One, it
remains a thoroughly exciting and entertaining movie, even more than 70 years
after its release. Two, it’s the
film that most accurately captured the look of Civil War America, by
painstakingly recreating sets and costumes from old Matthew Brady photographs.
“Make it so real, it hurts,” Buster was quoted as saying to his
designers. As such, this film
really is the war come to life for most modern audiences.
Three, it was a comedy so far ahead of its time that today, it seems like
one of the freshest pictures from the silent era, even though it largely failed
to find an audience during its day.
The General had
been a project long on the burner for Keaton, who found inspiration in a true
Civil War story about a group of Yankees who stole a southern train and drove it
north with the intention of burning bridges behind him.
Since Buster had long been one of his most profitable stars, producer
Joseph Schenck finally greenlit his pet project, and the incredible amount
of money it would take to realize his vision.
Buster plays Johnnie Gray, a southern engineer with only
two loves: his train, and his lady,
Annabelle Lee (Mack). When the war
breaks out, he finds his chance to prove his mettle by enlisting.
But being more valuable as an engineer, the army refuses to take him.
“If you lose this war, don’t blame me,” he tells them.
But his girl, thinking him a coward for not enlisting, wants nothing more
to do with him.
As fate would have it, she ends up on his train, The
General, as it heads north. While
passengers and crew are at lunch, a division of Yankee soldiers seize the train
and make off with it, taking Annabelle along as a hostage.
Thus begins one of the cinema’s great chases, as Johnnie finds another
train and sets off in pursuit.
This premise served two purposes: one, it allowed Buster, one of the greatest physical
comedians and stuntmen who ever lived, almost unlimited possibilities for
hysterical gags and breathtaking feats, most of which come from him trying to
operate the train, fight the bad guys, and protect himself from their acts of
sabotage single handedly—all while he and his train stay on the move. And second, the fact that the film stays in almost constant
motion makes the picture an exciting experience. The action never lets up, and Buster’s masterful use of
tracking shots plays beautifully.
The second half of the film is the reverse of the
first…once Johnnie has rescued Annabelle and learned of the Northerners’
plans to bring a supply train down south to make their army unbeatable, the two
must race back on The General, this time with the Yankees pursuing them, in
order to warn of the attack. One
scene demonstrates Buster’s mastery of tracking and timing:
we see the Yankee train pull right behind Johnnie’s box car, and begin
to climb aboard. As they do, the
camera moves forward to the front of the box car, where we see Johnnie is
loosing it, one step ahead of them.
The chase leads to the movie’s climactic scene—the most
expensive single shot of the silent era. The
Yankee train attempts to cross a bridge Johnnie has set fire to, and the entire
rig collapses, dumping the train into the river below.
People came from miles around to witness the filming of the crash…a
stunt so bold and costly, it could only be done once.
Thankfully, it worked on the first take.
The locomotive’s destruction leads to a terrific battle
sequence at the river, one of the biggest and most painstakingly constructed
ever. Explosions were set
everywhere, and Buster had to be cautious as to when and where they would be set
off, and letting his enormous cast of extras know exactly where they would be,
so no one would get hurt. When the
picture was finished, Buster was certain it was his masterpiece.
Critics and audiences at the time, however, were not so
sure. It still boggles my mind to
read actual film reviews from that time period and try to believe that so many
hated this classic picture. Why?
Well, as mentioned, Buster’s film was definitely ahead of its time.
People were actually appalled at the notion that he created a comedy
about a war. War was not something
to laugh at, and word quickly got around that The
General was a distasteful picture. The
film didn’t come close to recouping its enormous cost.
As such, Buster, not unlike Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, created what would one day be considered one of the
greatest films ever made, but the ironic initial failure would both haunt and
begin the unraveling of the remainder of his career.
Some might ask if there's really a useful purpose to put silent era films on Blu-ray...in fact, I asked myself the same question. But Kino offers a definitive answer with their release of The General...it's so beautiful, I felt a little choked up. I love Buster Keaton and have seen this movie more times and in more incarnations than I can count, but this high definition transfer newly remastered from the original camera negatives is breathtaking. Never has Keaton's imagery come through with such detail and clarity...in fact, a clarity I never would have though possible from a film that's over eight decades old. Yes, there are unavoidable instances of spots and marks on the print, but this deserves a full four stars just for the wow factor it's bound to give silent film buffs. This is a piece of history from the early days of cinema come to vivid life like never before...I doubt even original 1920s audiences had it this good!
There is a new musical score composed by Carl Davis and
offered here in full DTS HD orchestral glory that is potent and tasteful.
The uncompressed audio offers a clearness that lets you hear every instrument as
though the performance was live in your living room. For those more
used to Lee Erwin's organ score from previous video releases, that's included
too, but at least check out what Mr. Davis and musicians have done for this
For those more used to Lee Erwin's organ score from previous video releases, that's included too, but at least check out what Mr. Davis and musicians have done for this soundtrack.
This isn't quite th e same as Kino's original Art of
Buster Keaton box set issue...there are no bonus Keaton shorts, but there IS
a new array of extras. My favorites are the vintage television
introductions...one by Gloria Swanson from the 1950s, and one later from Orson
Welles. Welles' intro is longer and features vintage clips from Keaton's
one-reel classics, and finishes with Welles' original conclusion to the
exhibition as well.
e same as Kino's original Art of Buster Keaton box set issue...there are no bonus Keaton shorts, but there IS a new array of extras. My favorites are the vintage television introductions...one by Gloria Swanson from the 1950s, and one later from Orson Welles. Welles' intro is longer and features vintage clips from Keaton's one-reel classics, and finishes with Welles' original conclusion to the exhibition as well.
There is an HD video tour of the original General engine, a look at the original filming locations then and now, some original home movies shot back in the day on location, and "The Buster Express"; a look at the comic genius' fascination with trains throughout his career.
The General is a true comedy classic, envisioned and crafted by one of America’s true film icons. It has stood the test of time and earned its place of consideration on the lists of the greatest movies ever made. If you're not yet a fan, you need to take this Blu-ray release opportunity to see what you've been missing, and if you ARE a fan...get ready to be blown away by what Kino has done with this movie in high definition.