Saturday, February 04, 2006

THE GENERAL - 80 years later, and we still can't touch it!

Not to be a one-note record, but when you watch a movie like North Country, you wonder whether in eighty years time, anyone will give a damn about it. Dear Lord, I wonder whether anyone will remember it a month after the Oscars. By contrast, in THE GENERAL we have a genuine gold-standard movie - a movie that has withstood eighty years of cultural change and critical assessment. Newly restored and furnished with a wonderful orchestral score by Colin Davis, this masterpiece is on release at London's National Film Theatre, and it is pure delight to see it on the big screen at last.

THE GENERAL is a silent feature starring Buster Keaton. He plays a decent but unassuming chap who "has two loves in his life" - his steam engine called "The General" - and his girlfriend. When the Civil War breaks out he isn't allowed to enlist for the South, much to his girlfriend's shame, because, unbeknown to him, he is considered of more value to the war effort as a railwayman. But one day, his engine and his girlfriend are hijacked by spies from the Union army. Keaton gives chase, eventually going behind enemy lines where he overhears the enemy's plan. The chase is on to get back to the South, warn the Confederates and win the respect of his girl and a place in the Confederate Army.

You can watch THE GENERAL for a whole bunch of reasons - not least because it is really really funny. In my screening we had a whole bunch of kids in the audience and it was wonderful to see them connecting with a movie made eighty years ago when CGI ogres were but a blink in the milkman's eye. The second reason to watch THE GENERAL is that, in the manner of KING KONG or an INDIANA JONES flick, it is an all-out action adventure epic. We see whole armies in pitched battle, railway chase scenes of which Spielberg would be proud, not to mention a steam locomotive driving onto a burning bridge and then crashing into the river below. You look at how well the movie is made and wonder just how they did it with the resources available to them at the time.

And remember, Keaton not only stars in but directed this flick - he is a real cinematic visionary - an auteur forty years before a bunch of jumped-up frenchmen coined the term. Which brings me to the thrid reason to see this flick - it is simply one of those films every serious film-lover should watch. Keaton is one of the three greats of the silent movie era along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Although he achieved much less commercial success, he is now revered as the greatest of the three. Keaton's physical comedy is much more subtle than that of Charlie Chaplin. Rather than playing "the tramp" or "the great dictator", Keaton usually plays normal guys caught up in wonderful adventures. Moreover, while his comedy is delivered in a dead-pan style that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face". As a result, Keaton's work is much more accessible to the modern audience and worth a go even if you've found it hard to enjoy Chaplin or, say, Laurel and Hardy. Do you need another reason to see it? Go on, knock yourself out - books yourself tickets right now!

THE GENERAL has been restored, cleaned up and put back on release at the National Film Theatre in London. Older prints are available on DVD.

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