Silent film is having something of a renaissance at the moment. Though it’s doubtful whether the success of The Artist will actually bleed through into the industry itself and create more silent film, the interest in it is currently the highest it’s been for decades. With this in mind then, the DVD of the week this time is from that era and is not only considered brilliant by this writer but is often quoted as the greatest of all the silent films even topping the likes of Metropolis, Sunrise and Nosferatu in the polls.
Though the silent era is famous for producing the greatest group of on screen comics in the history of comedy, there is one who stands above all the others as a performer and director. Buster Keaton is something of movie mogul. There’s simply nothing he hasn’t tried in film whether it’s acting, writing, stunts or directing, all of which he’s incredibly good at. Keaton is far more acrobatic than Harold Lloyd, more deadpan than Charlie Chaplin and more believable than Laurel and Hardy. He is, as Scorsese would probably say, the King of Comedy.
The General is an absolutely monumental achievement. It blends so many elements successfully that it’s hard to know where to start with the praise. Keaton himself is at the heart of the film being its main character and director so perhaps some more Keaton exaltation is required before moving on. Keaton himself is a superb actor here. His facial expressions are hilarious and his timing is sharp. He plays a character we can believe in and yet feel sympathy for at the same time. This makes him someone that is endlessly watchable with every new situation in the film showing the potential for hilarious consequences.
The stunts on show in this film are utterly ridiculous in the sense that what we see on screen is actually what’s happening. There are numerous death defying moves on Keaton’s part, usually involving fast moving trains and high jumps but the highlight on a physical level is Keaton’s character standing on the front of debris clearer at the head of the train throwing logs at the ends of other logs blocking the way on the track and making them bounce out of the way all while the train is moving…
The story itself is relatively simple and consists of various train journeys to rescue the girl he’s in love with and to escape the enemy troops giving chase. The civil war setting was always going to be epic to look at on screen but considering the limitations of the time, some of the results are beyond spectacular. In one of this DVD’s many extras, Orson Welles calls it “a more accurate and beautiful movie about the civil war than Gone with the Wind”. That’s a pretty big statement in itself but coming from Orson Welles makes it just that bit more believable.
The finale of the film, which is a battle, is also one of the best screen battles ever staged. Keaton plays up the comedic moments splendidly but it’s the image of a real steam locomotive genuinely crashing off a burning bridge that is unforgettable and the highlight of the film as well as the scene. Such a massive piece of action on such a scale would be something knocked up on a laptop with CGI these days. Here it’s completely real and you begin to wonder what would have happened if Keaton had wanted to do a retake…
The Cinema Club release of The General really is something special. The print of the film is beautiful and the quality is high for something that is coming up to 90 years old. The release is a double disc special edition and is literally brimming with extras. As with all good releases of silent films, this version contains different soundtrack options for the viewer’s to choose from. Though the Robert Israel score is perfect in its capturing of the feel and authenticity of the era, the second audio option is absolutely brilliant. Joe Hisaishi, the man behind the music of Studio Ghibli, has recorded a soundtrack for The General that manages to bring out new feelings and emotions in the film. It’s simply beautiful. There’s no amount of words that can do justice for his work, which is now part of the film and will always be the first choice of score for watching no matter what the purists think.
The second disc has so many extras that the running time actually overtakes the time of the film itself. It includes various introductions to the film from David Robinson and Orson Welles, three rare Buster Keaton shorts, a rare short film by Disney, two making of documentaries and a visual filmography. The Railroader short in particular is brilliant and lives in the sort of cartoon reality that everyone deep down wishes existed.
With all the fuss over The Artist and its various Oscar nominations, perhaps now is a good time to see where all of the inspiration for it came from. The silent era in general is probably the strongest of any era in film where even the comedies were beautiful. The General is the perfect opening to this often overlooked collection of films and is something so filled up to the brim with ambition, charm, wit and excitement, it’s hard to imagine film ever doing anything so brilliant again.