May 24, 2009
107 Minutes — February 5, 1927
Comedy / Romance / War / Action
Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
#30 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time
“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.
A confederate train driver gets his train and his girl back when they are stolen by Union soldiers.
What’s amazing is not just that it’s 82 years old, not just that it isn’t boring, but that it’s downright exciting to watch. Keaton never changes expressions, which makes his evermore perilous situations even more entertaining.
The plot is simple. Fort Sumter has been fired upon and the the Civil War is upon us. We are in the South and men rush to the recruitment office to enlist. Keaton loves both his locomotive and his girlfriend. She insists that he sign up for the army, but the military leaders believe that he’s more valuable as a train engineer bringing supplies to and fro. Though no one tells him this. His girl refuses to see him until he’s in uniform. He continues engineering for a full year until at a dinner stop, a Northern spy steals his train and starts speeding north, burning bridges and tearing down communication towers. It is up to Keaton to get the train back.
He first runs, then steals a huge-wheeled bicycle, then gets on one of those up and down sidecars that rides on the tracks, and finally, the gives chase in another train engine. The chase is thrilling. He constantly has to feed the engine wood, he grabs a cannon and tries to fire it towards the other train, the escaping men leave obstacles on the tracks which he must push off, the two armies are marching in the background as Keaton obliviously chops wood, and Keaton is running on top of the train and over the woodpile and into the boxcar. The action is fabulous. We always know where everyone is. The camera follows from the side at high speed. And Keaton never changes expression. Like there’s nothing he can’t do. He isn’t a reluctant hero, he is going to get his train back no matter how far north he has to chase it.
There are creative sight gags involving the water tank and the cannon which shifts and aims squarely at Keaton himself. There is a damsel in distress. There are some pretty impressive battle scenes using hundreds of extras. And then there is the scene of a full-sized real locomotive attempting to cross a river on a burning bridge before it plummets to the valley below. The layout of the sequence is impressive even by modern standards. The camera follows from quite a distance as the Union army begins marching down the steep hill to ford the river while the huge train rumbles (silently, natch) over the smoldering bridge. Horses and cannons and men with muskets all marching from left to right. The train is incredibly imposing, comes from out of the woods and chugs towards the right of frame. Just when it looks like the bridge might hold, the heavy machine crashes through and lands in a smoking heap in the river below. There was obviously no chance for a new take. I don’t know how many cameras I would have had operating to ensure that the event was captured. But the interesting thing is that the big crash stunt was part of a much larger mosaic of things happening all over the frame. There are men moving, trees swaying, the river is rushing, etc. None of the actors are watching the train because they know what’s about to happen. The whole scene seems like the train fell through by mistake, which makes it much more realistic.
There is a terrible-quality clip of the scene you can watch here.
The film had a complete story, it was exciting and the jokes were shown in the service of the story, not as a set piece as you might find in other silent comedies. And what Keaton did physically and how he shot the action sequences are a fabulous antidote to modern comic book films where the audience is never sure where characters are onscreen and who is fighting whom. Keaton didn’t have the luxury of quick cutting. Most of our modern action directors could learn a thing or two from 1926′s THE GENERAL.
“It is an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical re-creation of a Civil War episode, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. Keaton defies logic with one ingenious silent comic sequence after another, and it is important to note that he never used a double and did all of his own stunts, even very dangerous ones, witha calm acrobatic grace.” — Roger Ebert The Great Movies
“One of Buster Keaton’s most celebrated comedies. It’s a classic and many people swear by it, although it isn’t funny in the freely inventive way of his Steamboat Bill, Jr. Its humor is too drawn out for laughter. And yet is has a beauty: it has the shape of comedy.” — Pauline Kael
“It is real and the train’s maneuvers credible and dangerous. It is well known that Keaton performed personally in scenes that involved considerable risk. It is not only a comedy but a genuinely heroic film. I would swap all of Modern Times for that glorious moment when Buster’s meditation fails to notice the growing motion of the engine’s drive shaft on which he is sitting.
“Slow-starting, then hilarious action comedy, often voted one of the best films ever made. It was an expensive production, with its spectacular train crash becoming the most costly single shot in silent films. At the time of its original release, it was a critical and popular failure. It took thirty years before it was recognized as a classic of comedy. Its sequence of sight gags, each topping the one before, is an incredible joy to behold.” — #128 Halliwell’s Top 1000
“Keaton’s best, and arguably the greatest screen comedy ever made. Against a meticulously evoked Civil War background, Buster risks life, limb and love as he pursues his beloved railway engine, hijacked by Northern spies up to no good for the Southern cause. The result is everything one could wish for: witty, dramatic, visually stunning, full of subtle, delightful human insights, and constantly hilarious.” — Time Out Film Guide 2004
“Keaton’s masterpiece and arguably the most formally perfect and funniest of silent comedies. Full of eloquent man-vs-machinery images and outrageous sight gags.” — Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever 2001
“One of Keaton’s best silent features, setting comedy against true Civil War story of stolen train, Union spies. Not as fanciful as other Keaton films, but beautifully done.” — Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide
THE GENERALTags: 8.3, Action, Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, Comedy, Romance, Silent, Top 1000, War