Studio: Kino International
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 78 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 1080p High Definition - 1.33:1
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Uncompressed 2.0 Stereo
Release Date: November 10, 2009
Review Date: November 16, 2009
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
Though drastically underappreciated today, cinema’s Silent Era was a foundational period and contains films that remain today, extraordinary visual feats of storytelling; engaging and entertaining equal to any other era in film. As many know, silent films do not have synchronized audio and so during their heyday, the filmic form employed intertitles to set the scene, or provide dialogue, and live performances of piano and orchestra, featuring fully improvised or classically drawn pieces, to supply the ‘score’. The music, often improvised, was in many ways a transitional element of theater and cinema – but that would change with D.W Griffiths Birth of a Nation, noted for being a big-budgeted epic, which was taken to theaters with a score specifically designed to be used during its exhibition.
1927’s The jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie’ feature with audio synched to the film, effectively ushered in the end of the silent era, extinguishing that form of celluloid art completely within ten years. But during its reign, the Silent Era created ageless names of cinema, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a personal favourite of mine, Harold Lloyd. These actors, with miraculous and meritorious physical capabilities, amazed with their unique abilities; dexterous, daring, dazzling, and dynamic.
Buster ‘The Great Stone Face’ Keaton’s The General, is a great example of the great cinematic treasures conjured during the silent era and is deserving of great study and a lifetime of appreciation. Based loosely on a true event which occurred just 64 years before it was filmed, The General tells the tale of a simple Engineer, Johnnie Gray , working for Western & Atlantic Rail Road, when war breaks out (the American civil war) with news of the attack on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter. Gray has two loves in his life, the steam train he operates (The General) and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When Annabelle’s brother and father vow to sign-up to fight in the Confederate Army against the Union soldiers, she looks to Johnnie to muster up the courage and bravery to do the same – and for his love, he rushes to do so. But being an engineer on the vitally important railroads makes him more valuable as a civilian than a soldier, and so he is rejected. His love, upon realized that he has not signed up (but not being aware of the reason), rejects him, pledging not to even so much as speak to him until he is in uniform.
A year later, the Union army engages a bold plan, stealing the valuable steam train, The General, from the clutches of the south – with Annabelle on board – which sets Johnnie off on an adventure to retrieve his sweet Annabelle and an escapade into enemy territory, hot on the heels of his locomotive held in the clutches of the blue coats. This is where Buster Keaton’s unendingly inventive expertise lights up the screen – vivacious and daring feats of physical comedy on display with the entire steam engine and tracks serving as props for his visual gags. Keaton, born of the Vaudeville variety entertainment techniques, was a pioneer of perilous predicaments and perpetual pratfalls – and his Johnnie Gray is a perfect hapless hero, stumbling unexpectedly into fortune by stumbling through (often completely unsuspectingly) dangerous and dire circumstances.
The General is classic chase comedy, with concoctions of sight gags running up the tracks into Union territory to steal back the lady and the train – chasing both prizes - then back down into home territory, being chased by the enemy. Genuinely entertaining, superbly shot, The General is replete with incredible moments. Keaton climbs on and jumps off moving trains with sublime ease, crawls across the top of uneven carriages, and runs down the uneven ground between the tracks with ease. In one scene, with the train in motion, Keaton disembarks to remove a huge block of wood from the tracks ahead that could derail his transport – without a stunt double (and quite obviously, without visual effects) he struggles with the block, yanking it from its grounding just in time to allow the train to continue unencumbered – but more extraordinarily, with block in hand, and he still hanging on front of the train, he times a throw of the black onto a second, which threatens to derail his train, flipping the block off the track mere seconds before it could have caused havoc.
Buster Keaton’s nickname as the Great Stone Face is entirely appropriate. His responses to cataclysmic close-calls are stoic and stayed expressions – just as they are with joy, frustration, confusion, and worry. This signature element of his performance is as significant as his stunt prowess, and as recognizable as Chaplin with his penguin walk or Lloyd and his bespectacled face.
Keaton co-wrote and co-directed The General with Clyde Bruckman (whose name was taken for use in the classic The X-Files episode ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose), and displayed his deft hand both in front of, and behind the camera. Keaton has long been lauded as one of the great actor-directors of all time, and in this, perhaps his greatest film, it is easy to see why. His perceptive framing and clever movement of the camera gives the film an airless feel at times, riding alongside the moving train, keeping the action in motion much of the time, and exploring a great many ways to film on and around the centerpiece and namesake of the picture.
Speaking of the namesake, fearing that Keaton’s picture would use the great locomotive in ways not respectful of its history, use of the actual ‘The General’ was forbidden – a shame given how respectful and reverent Keaton really is of the famous locomotive.
Despite celebrating a victory of the southern side of the civil war (which I recognize is not a statement on the aims of either side of that conflict), Keaton himself, and his character, appears to have little purposeful allegiance and chooses rather to simply levy an adventurous escapade against the simplest of notions – the love of a woman, and the love of his train.
The General is a remarkable film, rich with historically accurate elements (as frequently noted in essays which discuss the film), and abounding in Keaton’s swift, faultless physical expertise – and it should be enjoyed, appreciated, studied, and shared as much as possible. As we are evermore removed from the progenitor era of cinema, efforts to restore and archive these films are fruitless unless we can find ways to experience, pass on, distribute, and share their greatness. Kino has provided more than just a method to continue to enjoy this silent era treasure, they have preserved and presented in a pristine manner this treasure for continuing generations to laud and love. And for that, we can all celebrate.
The Video: 4.5 out of 5
Films from the silent era did not readily have available natural color processing, and so these films were typically treated with various shades of dye to produce a certain look. It is noted that The General had some prints that were tinted sepia for daytime shots, and bluer for nighttime scenes (not uncommon for the day), while other prints were the more typical black and white.
Kino International provides The General in a spectacular looking Blu-ray presentation that has been ‘Mastered in HD from a 35mm archive print struck from the original camera negative’. There have been a number of versions through the years – on home video, DVD, and theatrical presentation. My introduction to this film was on, what I considered at the time, a great looking PAL VHS, perhaps 20 years ago. This latest version, with sepia tinting for the daytime scenes and blue tints (sharp blue, in fact) for the few nighttime scenes, is a true delight. Presented full frame (1.33:1) in accordance with its theatrical presentations, the amount of detail in the image is nothing short of wonderful. Though the credit and title cards exhibit a fair amount of dust and dirt – debris which can also be found in other scenes through the film – generally this is a very clean image. Some have lauded the French MK2 as a cleaner print (I have not been fortunate enough to see that version – though it is reported to have some flaws), but Kino has delivered a version that surely competes for the best this film has ever looked. It should be noted also, that the title cards indicating ‘End of Part One’, etc, are not included in this version, and to my knowledge, have not been included in any version available for home distribution.
I can imagine a perfect version of The General that reduces the speckles and debris – but as for the presentation of Keaton’s scenes, and his excellent performance, this version is close enough to perfect to recommend highly.
The Sound: 4.5 out of 5
Kino International must be applauded for the terrific audio options available. Through the years, there have been several accompanying soundtracks – so many performed live, but Kino has provided three distinctly different versions – each giving the film a slightly different flavor. I wish I could recall the version used in the UK VHS version I owned, but the version composed and conducted by Carl Davis in 1987 for Channel 4 (performed by the Thames Silent Orchestra) is just superb. Available in both a crystal clear DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an uncompressed 2.0 stereo version, we are able to choose how to enjoy the audio presentation. Also available with this release is a Theater Organ score by Lee Erwin and a version arranged and directed by Robert Israel from other silent era music.
The music in silent era films is even more pivotal than the underscore used in film today. As an avid film score collector (I have hundreds upon hundreds of scores from Korngold and Herrmann classics to modern triumphs by Zimmer, Horner, Williams, Goldsmith and more), I was acutely aware of Carl Davis’ skills in using the boisterous and pitch-perfect music, often invoking familiar cavalry songs, to add dimension and support to the action onscreen.
The high score for The General’s audio is as much from the clarity of the sound as it is from the importance of the available scores – and their critical role in bringing The General to life.
The Extras: 3.5 out of 4
A Video Tour of the Authentic General, presented in association with The Southern Museum (18:05): This interview with Harper Harris (of the Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History) was filmed in 2008, and has Harper confidently and enthusiastically discussing the birth and specifications of the famous General locomotive. With his southern drawl and encyclopedic recalling of the story, Harper is entertaining and the tale fascinating.
A Tour of the Filming Locations, presented by John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes (4:20): Author John Benston, referencing his book Silent Echoes, provides an audio accompaniment to a tour of the locations used in Keaton’s The General, with a look at some of the locations almost 80 years after the film was shot.
Behind-the-Scenes Home Movie Footage (1:00): Filmed in Cottage Grove, Oregon, The General apparently drew a little crowd during production – the footage seen here was captured by onlookers.
Filmed Introduction by Gloria Swanson (2:00): This introduction by Silent Era star Gloria Swanson (The Coast of Folly) was “intended to accompany TV broadcasts of the film in the 1960’s”
Filmed Introduction by Orson Welles (12:21): This delightful and fascinating special feature, filmed in 1971, has the great Orson Welles recalling his memories of Buster Keaton for a series on Silent Films, and includes clips from several other (and earlier) Keaton works.
“The Buster Express,” a brisk montage of train gags from throughout Keaton’s career (5:00): A fun montage of Keaton’s use of and fascination with railways, trains and trams in his career
DVD Release Trailer (1:00): Produced in 2008 for the DVD release
Photo Gallery: More than terrific 75 images – including stills, promotional materials and more.
A critical and commercial failure upon its release, the expensive film ($750,000 back in 1926), which included a massive train crash sequence crashing off a burning bridge (a mammoth action scene for its day – and still today), The General didn’t find the respect and appreciation that it has come to enjoy today for many years. Keaton’s career took a back step after its failure, and this, coupled with the advent of talking pictures, maneuvered him into the studio system and a limiting of his artistic creative control.
To call Buster Keaton’s The General a classic is simply obvious – it is a classic among classics. Billed as a comedy, it succeeds in that genre, but impresses as a chase-action film augmented by that comedy. The inventiveness of the action, the solid filmmaking, brazen actor performed stunts, vivid period details, and bold scale, The General is an exemplary example of the silent era’s triumphant accomplishments. Highly Recommended!
Overall Score 4.5 out of 5