Review of Kino's 2008 Ultimate 2-Disc Edition of Buster Keaton's
by Jeremy Mathews
Of all the film's about the American Civil War, one towers above the
rest, with a meticulous attention to historical detail, the grace of a
poet and the compositional precision of the immortal Matthew Brady's photographs
that documented the era. The source, however, may come as a surprise. The
film didn't come from the high-brow channels that churned out the beloved
classic "Gone with the Wind" (1939), the controversial D.W. Griffith landmark
"The Birth of a Nation" (1915) or recent favorites like "Glory" (1989)
and "Gettysburg" (1993). It came from a silent slapstick comedian.
More than 80 years after its release, Buster Keaton's "The General"
remains one of the funniest, most exciting and mesmerizing films of all
time. Even as new generations of filmgoers discover Keaton's subtle, deadpan
work with fresh eyes and shift attention to other masterpieces like "Sherlock,
Jr.," "The General" never loses its relevance or appeal. Hence the ongoing
quest to release the ultimate version of the film on DVD. Kino International
has upgraded its previous edition from "The Art of Buster Keaton" series
to a great-looking new two-disc set, featuring a high-definition transfer
from the original camera negative.
Keaton proudly attributed his film's accuracy to the decision to draw
his plot not from a novel but actual history when he dramatized the Great
Locomotive Chase of 1862. The event involved a group of Union raiders who
stole a train in Georgia to disrupt the Western & Atlantic Railroad,
a key to the Confederate army's supply line, only to be pursued by the
train's conductor and two other men. Along with his gagmen, including co-director
Clyde Bruckman, Keaton adapted the story and cast himself as the lone hero,
engineer Johnny Gray, who fights the forces of fate by chasing down his
stolen engine and proving himself to the woman he loves, Annabelle Lee
(Marion Mack). Of course, on the way he has to contend with many comical
obstacles, including a stubborn cannon, an abandoned train car that refuses
to get out of his way, and the sobering fact that if he were to catch his
train, he'd be greatly outnumbered--something that the Union soldiers luckily
Throw aside the brilliant gags, the perfectly devised shots and Keaton
the actor's ability to earn laughs from the smallest of gestures--Keaton's
greatest accomplishments is that he turned an extended chase sequence into
one of the most organic of all cinematic narratives. Nary a moment feels
forced, drawn-out, or rushed. Every scene grows out of it predecessor and
sets up the next one. The structure plays out with artful symmetry as the
chaser becomes the chased and repays his antagonists for the trouble they
Even Keaton's riffs on filmmaking conventions are placed as well as
any other filmmaker could place the conventions he's referencing. As Johnny
hides under a table in a house occupied by Union soldiers, he discovers
that Annabelle Lee was kidnapped in the robbery. When he sees her through
a hole in a table cloth, the hole stands in for a by-then out-of-fashion
iris, framing her face in a circle. This faux-iris comes in the same dramatic
moment for which D.W. Griffith might have used an actual iris shot while
making one of his high-class dramas five or 10 years earlier.
Two of the film's most iconic shots illustrate Keaton's range as a filmmaker.
In one, he sits forlorn and motionless on his engine's driving bar, after
his love unfairly rejects him. The train starts moving, but he's too sad
to notice, and sits still and aloof as the train accelerates, looping him
up and down. The other, an astounding train wreck, was the most expensive
shot of the silent era, yet presents itself with an ironic matter-of-factness
to mock a self-assured villain. Notably, neither of these shots illustrate
Keaton's remarkable gifts as a physical comedian, but instead showcase
his impeccable understanding of timing and visual language. No idea was
too small or too grand for Keaton, as long as he could milk a laugh from
it and keep his audience engaged in the story.
Kino's new HD transfer is finely detailed and captures the beauty of
the sepia-toned print like no other previous edition. Only the black-and-white
2004 French edition by MK2, which was restored a frame at a time to remove
scratches and decay that still exist in the Kino version, surpasses it.
While the added detail is welcome (an HD release would be more than
welcome), the age of the source material still shows. The imperfections,
while minimal compared to many silent releases, are nevertheless noticeable
throughout the film, and mar what could have been an image of exquisite
quality. Also, while the sepia tone often works to great effect, the blue
tinting in the nighttime scenes tends to remove detail.
Kino earns brownie points for the inclusion of three different scores
for the film. Most importantly, the new disc marks the first time that
Carl Davis's well-loved 1987 orchestral score, composed for Thames Silents
on UK TV, has been released in the US. Davis crafted a score that matches
the drama brilliantly and keeps up with the film's comedic pace, and it
sounds great in the new 5.1 Stereo Surround track. The disc also includes
a theater organ score by Lee Erwin and the the ubiquitous Robert Israel
arrangement, both of which sound very good considering the source material.
The bonus disc includes about 45 minutes worth of extra features, including
three new featurettes. John Bengston, an investigative film historian who
tracked down Keaton's shooting locations for his book Silent Echoes, gives
a brief and enlightening tour of shooting locations in Cottage Grove, Oregon
as they were then and as they are now. The longest segment, hosted by an
expert from the Southern Museum, provides a tour of the actual General
from the Great Locomotive Chase, with details on the historical event,
and a demonstration of the inner-workings of the train. While the segment
offers no insight into the film itself, it may be of interest to history
buffs and those who wish to compare the true story to Keaton's version.
Finally, "The Buster Express" offers a fun, five-and-a-half minute free-association
montage of Keaton's many gags involving trains.
A minute's worth of behind-the-scenes home movie footage of the filmmaking
process has value, but Kino could have greatly increased that value by
meaningfully editing together with clips from the film and adding a voiceover
to explain it.
There are also two celebrity-hosted introductions from television airings
of the film. Orson Welles offers an introduction that only Orson Welles
could deliver. It's at times insightful and astute, at times suspect (did
Welles really meet Keaton while he was a dishwasher, or did Welles just
think it sounded good?) and always comedically Wellesian. The Gloria Swanson
introduction is dated, much shorter, and much less informative, but might
amuse some looking for campy fun.
Finally, Kino includes a gallery of promotional photos, lobby cards
from various countries and production stills, including material from a
sequence that was deleted from the film's final cut.
It would have been nice if Kino included "Cops" and "The Playhouse,"
so that owners of the company's previous edition could discard the old
one, but I suppose Keaton-lovers will just have to keep two to five editions
of "The General" on the shelf, depending on which scores they like best.
There have been a lot of quality editions of "The General" in recent
years, most notably the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra's Private Reserve
release and MK2's nearly insurmountable restoration, which features Joe
Hisaishi's new score (as well as Israel's). MK2 did Kino no favors by executing
a full frame-by-frame cleanup that repaired any damage and decay on its
own HD transfer. Lucky for Kino, that version is currently only available
in Europe and Australia (unless you've heard of the Internets).
Kino's new release wins out as the best U.S. release and the best tinted
transfer to grace Keaton's masterpiece. (Another thing to consider: the
MK2 edition is black-and-white whereas this edition is tinted, if you have
a preference.) And to finally have access to Davis's lovely score is equally
exciting. If you love "The General," you'll definitely want this edition
in your collection. If you're unfamiliar with Keaton, you ought to get
acquainted with one of true filmmaking geniuses. This is a good place to
Read more of Jeremy Mathews' reviews and musings at The