directors Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
I had been reading a biography of Buster Keaton, simply titled Keaton by Rudi Blesh, a man who had personally known Keaton and interviewed him and his family members. This book had long sat on my shelf but I was keen to watch another Keaton film after reading it. There were still a couple of Keaton features that we hadn’t seen. But in the end, I felt it had been a long time since we’d seen the film considered his masterpiece, his 1926 comedy/action/adventure The General.
The funny thing is that it had been six years since we’d seen it. Felix had been six, Clara four. Memories not as strong of that time. Not so surprisingly, Clara didn’t recall it at all. Felix recalled odd moments more than the epic ones. But Clara of course remembered other Keaton films that she’s liked, notably some of his short films.
When we’d seen it before, I had never seen it, so I think I anticipated it being more comic than it is. I think that is one of the misperceptions about the film because it certainly does have some very funny bits and moments, but it’s more an adventure first, with some stunning stunts and feats.
It’s based loosely on a true story, known as the “Great Locomotive Chase” that happened during the American Civil War in which a group of Union soldiers stole a Confederate railroad engine, taking down telegraph wires and damaging the rail tracks as they went, pursued by the Southern army. In Keaton’s version, he’s the lone man in pursuit, and his pursuit is less about the North versus the South but rather that they’ve stolen his beloved engine (oddly enough with his human beloved as a captive as well).
He chases them up and then recaptures the train and they chase him back. It all ends in the collapse of a railroad bridge and a skirmish between the armies and the heroism of one man. It’s a little befuddling, the story sort of making out the good guys as the South. It makes for a harder to explain context to the kids (it’s all quite complicated if you don’t feel like being reductive). But it struck me odd before, especially with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), these two major silent features in which the good guys are the Southerners. Of course, Griffith’s film is a much different ball of wax, it’s still on the surface, a little odd perhaps for a modern audience. This time around it all made a bit more coherent sense to me but I don’t know.
The film is wonderful. The kids were a tad restless but enjoyed the film a lot. I can imagine them getting to see it on the big screen would have better impact.
It’s amazing about Buster Keaton. He had such a small period of his life in which his greatest work was created. He was limited by Hollywood and so many other things throughout most of his life. It’s such a shame that he wasn’t given more opportunities as sound came into being. But one can only pine for what might have been for so long. What we have of Keaton’s is the best of much of what we have of anything. And that stuff is pure joy.