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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Full Frame
  • Dual Layer ( )
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • English: Dolby Digital Stereo
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • 4 Teaser trailer
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 9 Featurette
  • 4 Short film

The General (Buster Keaton)

/AV Channel . R4 . B&W . 75 mins . G . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The General is set in the time of America's Civil War.

Buster Keaton is a railroad engineer in charge of a small but beautiful engine, The General. When war erupts, he seeks to enlist -- but is rejected on the grounds that a good railroad engineer is more valuable to the South than another foot-soldier.

Trouble is, the recruitment office doesn't bother telling him why he's rejected -- he's just summarily kicked out of the office. As well as loving the General, he loves his girlfriend Annabelle. But Annabelle, having seen both her beloved brother and father enlist to fight the damn Yankees, now thinks Johnnie Gray is a coward. She'll have nothing to do with him until she sees him in uniform.

But fate takes a strange hand. A band of Yankee soldiers disguised as civilians penetrate deep into Confederate country and steal the General. Annabelle is seized too, and taken along for the ride. So what can Johnnie Gray do, but use every means possible to chase after the two things he loves, and bring them back to the South -- or die in the attempt.

The story, surprisingly, is true. Buster Keaton based his classic 1927 movie on a true tale of Civil War bravery. And the result is sublime. Forget that this is a silent movie. This 1927 classic has more expression, movement and sheer beauty (along with its comedy) than 99 per cent of films made today.

Part of the film's success comes from the still-astonishing story it tells. But its lasting appeal comes from the way it is told, with Buster Keaton, as director and star, confirming his place as the absolute top comedian of the silent era. Well, I'd place alongside him the blissful Laurel and Hardy -- that's a very select Pantheon indeed.

Keaton has been described as being a deadpan comic. But that's not the Keaton I recognise. His expressions are subtle, but always eloquent. And when in repose, his face has a strangely archaic Romantic-era beauty which serves to counterpoint his comedy.

The film is told with rapidity but always intensely gracefully. Keaton was denied the use of the real General to tell this tale, and trekked out to Oregon, where old locomotives and narrow tracks still existed. The film abounds in stunts, most of them life-threatening, and all done by Keaton in person. But Keaton's physical sight-gags are a far cry from the usual slapstick comedy of the day -- they're more balletic than physical -- that they're dangerous concerns only Keaton, not us .......

The cinematography throughout is just wondrous. Several commentators (including Orson Welles) compares the cinematography to the legendary Civil War still-photographs commissioned by or, in some cases, actually taken, by Mathew Brady. Most polls taken in the US still place The General in the top 100 movies of that country (well, they say of the world, but they are Americans, after all) and viewing this movie confirms its stature. Although very different in intent, it can be placed alongside classic European silent movies from masters such as Lang or Eisenstein.

  Video
Contract

This is a French restoration by the Mk2 company and presents The General in absolutely beautiful restored condition, as if we're part of its premiere audience. When we do detect some damage or artefact, it astonishes us by its rarity -- this is in virtual pristine condition.

And it is projected at its correct speed, so that movement is not artificially speeded-up. My only regret is that the entire movie is presented in black-and-white, without the mood-inducing colour tones introduced from time to time (sepia, deep blues) in screenings in the silent era.

  Audio
Contract

The DVD cover slick promises us a choice of two audio channels -- a brand-new 5.1 Surround audio track featuring a new score composed by Japanese composer/conductor Joe Hisaishi, recorded in 2004 with the Tokyo City Philharmonic, or a stereo soundtrack featuring an alternative score recorded in 1995 and composed by Robert Israel.

It would have been great to have sampled two different scores, and seen which followed Keaton's storytelling best. Unfortunately, the Robert Israel score seems to have been dumped. The stereo version is instead a repeat of the Hisaishi score, but missing the richness of its 5.1 Surround guise.

  Extras
Contract

The two-disc set is packed with extra features.

Most are found on the second disc. Unfortunately, although the menu for the disc lists all the special features, it lacks any navigable feature. Move left, right, up or down -- no buttons light up, nothing indicates where you are. You take pot-luck on what feature you're going to see. Which is a shame, since some of the features are excellent.

Starting with Disc One, we have an introduction to the movie by film historian David Robinson (six minutes) which is quite a sound background to Keaton's achievement, and a two-minute Mk2 feature on the film's restoration.

Thre is also a seven-minute feature on recording the new soundtrack, featuring in the main the recording of the song heard over the end-titles, sung by Anna Mouglalis and Georges Moustaki.

And the disc closes with four Madman propaganda trailers, for Play Time, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Spirited Away and Russian Ark.

The main feast comes on Disc Two.

We have:

1. The Railrodder, a 25-minute movie made in 1965 by young film-makers who had the bright idea of luring Keaton out of retirement to make a movie about a visiting Pom who railrods his way across scenic Canada. Fine fullscreen colour presentation.

2. Buster Keaton Rides Again, a black-and-white making-of documentary about the above, including birthday celebrations for the veteran actor, and a potted version of his life in film.

3. Filming the General. Silent compilation of clips made showing Keaton making his movie. Runs for just one minute.

4. Tinted Version. At last we can see just how atmosphere was accentuated in the old days by tinting the film for projection. These tinted excerpts run for almost seven minutes -- and during them, we can at last hear some of the very effective Robert Israel music for the film, scored predominantly for strings and piano.

5. Orson Welles Introduction. Here, recorded in 1971, is avuncular Orson Welles speaking about Keaton's achievement, and saying much of what we'll hear repeated by various film-scholars (including David Robinson on Disc One) years later. This runs for 11 minutes, and comprises both introduction to the movie, and afterthoughts after it had been screened. I think this DVD presentation would have benefited from having this on Disc One, as before-and-after the main feature. It is a wonderful bonus.

6. Buster Keaton Video Filmography. This is a selection of short clips from various of Keaton's movies, from 1923 (Three Ages to 1928 (Steamboat Bill Jnr). It runs for almost 12 minutes. Watch for the very last clip. It features probably the greatest sight-gag in the entire history of cinema, as potent today as it was back then. Pity the non-navigable menu makes it so difficult to find it again.....

7. The Return of the General. A colour feature on the restoration and national tour of the actual engine, The General, in 1962. A bit tedious at times, but this 11-minute doco does let us see what the real General looked like -- it's pretty as a picture and cute as a button, and a few other cliches besides.

8. The Great Locomotive Chase. This is in fact just a widescreen trailer for a Disney movie based on the same true story as The General -- but this time, told from the Yankee point of view, with Fess (Davy Crockett) Parker as the noble Union spy.

9. The Iron Mule. This 13-minute comedy short from 1925 stars a colleague of Keaton's, Al St John, alongside an 1830 engine known as the Iron Mule. It is distinctly unfunny and shows how keaton towered above most of his contemporaries -- apart, that is, from Laurel and Hardy, and perhaps Harold Langdon. Well, I guess Harold Lloyd might squeeze in too. Have I missed anyone? Don't think so.

10. Alice's Tin Pony. A 1925 animation feature (six minutes) from Walt Disney. Primitive in the extreme, featuring a mix of live and animated action -- the live part being a little girl who shares a steam-engine ride with her cat, who looks suspiciously like Australia's own Felix the Cat. The raucous soundtrack is historically interesting. It would presumably be reproduced using the same technology as Warner's Vitaphone -- a large shellac transcription disc played while the film was being screened, and hopefully synchronised with the on-screen action. Sound is credited to Brunswick, a famous 78 rpm record label.

11. Cops. A 1922 18 minute short featuring Buster Keaton with some good chases and stunts, although the effect is blunted somewhat by the same key scenes being seen in other extra features on this disc.

  Overall  
Contract

This is an essential part of any DVD movie collection. This is not only part of history, but is blissfully beautiful to view over and over again.

Get it. Only problem with the set is Disc Two's menu for extra features, which is more difficult to navigate than the Murray River on a dark night.


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      And I quote...
    "Forget that this is a silent movie. This 1927 classic has more expression, movement and sheer beauty (along with its comedy) than 99 per cent of films made today."
    - Anthony Clarke
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Pioneer DVD 655A
    • TV:
          Loewe Profil Plus 3272 68cm
    • Receiver:
          Denon AVR-2801
    • Speakers:
          Neat Acoustics PETITE
    • Centre Speaker:
          Neat Acoustics PETITE
    • Surrounds:
          Celestian (50W)
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
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