Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

So there’s something you all should know about me.

For as long as I can remember, my biggest body-horror trigger is anything having to do with eyes. I’m not even sure why – I’ve never had any kind of traumatic eye injury, nor has anyone in my family. I’ve got 20/20 vision, and one eye was even tested at 20/10 once. My brother had amblyopia as a very young child, but that was fixed through the strategic use of eyepatches for a couple years; no surgery. Still – any time I see or hear about anything that involves poking, cutting, piercing, or even just touching eyes, I get a full-body shudder and sometimes even start flailing like I’m trying to drive away bats.  I can’t even watch someone put in contact lenses.

Which brings us to our next film, the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. I came very, very close to skipping over it; my hardcover copy of the 1001 Movies list book has a note I wrote next to its entry, in large block capitals – “NO WAY IN HELL.”  And that is because, in the film’s most famous sequence, a man comes up behind a woman and he

(Kim’s shoulders tense, she stops writing)

 (five minutes later)

 comes up behind a woman and he

(stops writing again, closes laptop)

 (twenty minutes elapse)

 behind a woman and he

(closes laptop again)

 (takes deep breath)

 (reopens laptop)

 and he uses a razor to slice open a woman’s eyeball.

(squeals, slams laptop shut and flees to bedroom, grabs childhood-favorite Snoopy doll on bookshelf, and hides under covers with it)

 (one hour elapses)

 ….So I had my trepidations.

But the film is short, it’s free on Youtube, and the….offending scene is early.  And, it would be cheating if I skipped it.  So I gave myself permission to cover my eyes at that bit, since it was just a few seconds and would be over soon.  Even so, as it got up to that part my hand almost instinctively shot out and hit the “pause” button on my screen so I could brace myself first. It’s said that there’s an edit just before the actual razor slice, where you can tell that they’ve swapped in a cow’s eye; I couldn’t tell you if this is true, because my hands were over my eyes and that is the only way I was ever going to be able to get through this film and that scene and you can’t make me watch it so there.


The rest of it…wasn’t bad, but it was baffling. Un Chien Andalou was a collaboration between the surrealist artists Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, both of whom intended that the film not make sense. Instead, it’s a series of unconnected images which Buñuel and Dali lifted from their own dreams – a man wearing a nun’s wimple rides a bike, an androgynous woman idly pokes at a dismembered hand on a sidewalk, a man’s mouth disappears and he replaces it with a woman’s armpit hair.  Buñuel and Dali selected their sequences with the intent of not making sense or providing a narrative structure – they wanted audiences to bring their own interpretation to the scenes. Viewers over the years have tried reading a narrative structure into it, largely because most of the action is performed by a single couple stuck in a room together; however, that wasn’t the intent.  It’s just sort of a stream of….stuff.

Also, this being Europe between the wars and Buñuel and Dali being surrealists, they wanted to shock audiences. So there’s a handful of violent actions (as we know), and some sexualized moments when a man gropes a woman’s bare breasts.  This was shocking for audiences at the time, to be sure – on top of them also being uneasy about not knowing what in the bleeding hell was going on.

Nearly a century later, audiences may be more jaded. Visceral body horror aside, there was only one other sequence that got any reaction from me other than mild bafflement – a man drags two grand pianos through a room in one scene, each one topped with a decomposing donkey carcass. As the sequence goes on, though, you see that each of the ropes also has a priest tied to the underside, each being dragged along as well and both looking thoroughly confused.  I had to chuckle at that.

I did a bit of spelunking on Youtube after watching, when I saw there were some “[So and so] reacts to Un Chien Andalou” clips; save for a couple of serious Buñuel fans, though, most other reactions were similarly confused variations on “….I have no idea what this means.”

This could be another “it’s not them, it’s me” situation, though. I’ve always had a mixed response to contemporary art, and to Surrealism in particular; either I have a visceral, gut-level response to something, or I’m left cold.  Reading about context doesn’t help, either – for me, even though I know the meaning behind Damian Hirst’s shark-in-a-tank piece, it will forever look to me solely like a half-finished natural history museum exhibit.   It’s the same here – I’ve read that Buñuel’s inclusion of the donkeys on the pianos were inspired by seeing dead donkeys in the farm fields when he was a kid, but it was the priests that caught my eye. And no matter how many times I read that the razor scene was inspired by Buñuel seeing a very thin cloud bisecting the moon, my reaction will always be a shrill internal shriek.

But. I have watched it. And now I never have to watch it again in my life.  Huzzah.

(You will note that I have not included a still of that scene in this review because are you kidding me)

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

We should dispense with some history before I jump in here, even though there is vanishingly little chance my readers will be unfamiliar with the story of Joan of Arc.  But just in case: Joan was a 15th– Century French peasant girl living in regions then occupied by England. At the age of 13, she started hearing the “voices” of Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael, urging her to take up arms and save France from the English. We will set aside the question of the truth of her visions – whether we believe them or not, it’s a fact that many of her contemporaries did. Even so, her youth, illiteracy, and gender should also also have been strikes against her; but she nevertheless managed to locate Charles II (the heir to the French throne), convince him to mount an attack on the English occupiers, and even lead armies into battle herself, in two successful campaigns which ultimately saw Charles II crowned in the city of Reims.

But Joan wanted to keep going, and was captured by the English during an attack on Paris.  There she was turned over to the Parisian church leaders, who brought her to trial – convicting her not of treason, but of heresy. She was burned at the stake in 1431.  Almost immediately after, however, public sentiment turned to Joan’s case, and within 25 years Charles II was able to convince the Pope to grant Joan a posthumous annulment of the verdict.  She was canonized a Saint in 1920.

I say all of this as context for this film in particular, and its approach to Joan’s story.  Joan’s canonization and the dramatic details of her story made her a popular subject for drama in the 1920s. Readers may be familiar with other movies about Joan, or with the play by George Bernard Shaw. Most other productions focused on the whole of Joan’s life, however, or with the military campaign which brought her into the public eye. The Passion of Joan of Arc instead focuses solely on her trial and execution, and is based almost entirely on the actual court transcripts and records from her interrogation.  We don’t get any battle scenes with Joan brandishing a sword – we only get the crossfire of Joan and her interrogators.  Instead of lavish scenes with the French court or a poignant staging of the young Joan hearing her voices, all we see is the spare courtroom in Paris, and the dirty plaza where she is burned.

Actually, half the time we don’t even see that – filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer shoots the film almost entirely as a series of intercut close-ups on the character’s faces as they speak.  So most of the film is a parade of angry-looking men debating with a visibly frightened, but resolute, young woman. Dreyer does stack the deck a bit with the casting – most of the churchmen are older, and the mean-looking kind of old to boot (although one had hair that reminded me a bit too much of the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert).

Joan was an unknown vaudevillian actress named Renee Falconetti, who was unconventionally beautiful, but remarkably expressive.  Falconetti’s performance lays Joan’s emotional turmoil bare on her face.

So no, you don’t get any battle scenes. But you get Joan’s story stripped down to its essentials, which gives this film immense power.  Whatever you may think of Joan from a religious or historic perspective doesn’t matter; this film asks us to look at this on a human level, pointing out that here was an uneducated teenager facing off in a court of religious law against several older and more educated men, and that she not only had the strength to stand up to them, she also stuck to her principles despite the knowledge that doing so would bring her certain death.  Even if this about someone other than Joan, that is an astonishingly powerful story.

Image result for the passion of joan of arc

A historical footnote – some strange rumors circulated in France while Dreyer was making the film, including the idea that Lillian Gish was set to play Joan (!). The Archbishop of Paris therefore took a dim view of the film, and demanded a pre-screening to make some cuts before the film could be screened in France. Dreyer objected, but was powerless. A year later, a fire destroyed the master copy of the film, then in storage in Berlin; Dreyer tried to re-cut a backup using outtakes and some surviving prints, but that negative was also destroyed. Then in 1981, a janitor at a Norwegian mental institution discovered a copy of Dreyer’s original cut, inclusive of the bits censored by the Archbishop, in a broom closet. There is no clear explanation as to what the film was doing in such an astonishingly weird place – film historians’ best guesses are that the institution’s 1928 director may have requested a copy, since he was also a historian. But since this is a film about a saint, I’m inclined to believe there’s a bit of a miracle at work.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Docks Of New York (1928)

I’ve not previously run into a film that felt this much like a Tom Waits song.

It’s called The Docks of New York, but the film is mostly set in one bar where two steamship stokers and their boss are spending their one night of shore leave.  I’m assuming simple chance (or plot convenience) has brought them all to the same place – which just so happens to be where the foreman, Andy, runs into his ex-wife Lu carousing with some of the sailors from another ship. They have a grumpy, but resigned, reunion.

Stoker Bill, meanwhile, is en route to the same bar when he sees a woman jump into the harbor in an attempt to drown herself. He jumps in to rescue her, and brings her to the bar – conveniently close by – for help. The barmaid hustles her to one of the rooms upstairs, Lu tagging along to play nursemaid.  But Bill is taken with the young lady (or at least her looks) and lingers in her room, wanting to help as well.

Image result for the docks of new york

Our damsel in distress is Mae, a down-on-her-luck prostitute and barfly. She insists Bill should have let her drown, but he’s persuasive enough to let him show her a night on the town. “I can always make a hole in the water tomorrow night,” she says, shrugging.

Bill proceeds to wine and dine her – at least as far as one can in a dive bar – while also trying to talk her out of suicide.  She thinks she’s run-down? Well, he is too.  She’s done bad things?  Well, so has he. She thinks she’s ugly? Hell, no, she isn’t. Bill is so caught up in his mission – or captivated by Mae – that when she sighs that no one would love her for keeps, Bill blurts out that he’ll marry her, right then and there. Why not? When Mae scoffs, Bill doubles down – and gradually enlists the rest of the bar in the game. Someone drags the local preacher in to officiate, and the deed is done.

….And then the next morning, Bill gets cold feet. Mae wakes up as he prepares to do the walk of shame back to his boat, and he stammers out excuses – come on, she knew it was a game, wasn’t it?  Mae sheds a few tears, but lets him go, resigned to her fate.  Bill’s conscience bothers him all the way back to the ship. But meanwhile, Andy – who’s stayed behind, and also was checking Mae out – thinks he can step up now.  However, Lu has her own opinions about that…

The relationship between Lu and Mae, actually, is a lovely touch. The other characters and their stories all seem like stories I’ve heard before – the down-and-outs who find each other, the hooker with a  heart of gold, the rough-and-tumble sailor who finds love – but Lu’s story really caught my eye. She treats Bill and Mae’s “wedding” as a game at first, but like Bill, she’s been touched by Mae’s plight – and gradually comes to see her with genuine sisterly affection.

Image result for the docks of new york

Reviews at the time seem to all have agreed: the performances were good, but ultimately it was a run-of-the-mill story with a far-fetched ending. Still, there are some nicely set-up shots that herald the days of film noir; Mae’s suicide attempt caught my eye particularly.  All you see at first is the water, then her reflection in it, then you see the reflection jumping.

The “life among the low-lifes” element is also safely titillating, but ultimately nothing earth-shattering.

Tom Waits would really have fun producing a remake of this, however.  Maybe he’d even take a cameo as the preacher.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Kid Brother (1927)

So far we’ve had the Silent Film Comedy Stars version of Coke Vs. Pepsi in here, with me coming down on the side of Team Buster.  The Kid Brother introduces our R.C. Cola – Harold Lloyd.

Lloyd is pretty much doing the same thing Chaplin and Keaton did – setting up a simple scenario and using it as an excuse for a lot of gags.  In Lloyd’s case, rather than being a stoic like Keaton or a cuddly little tramp like Chaplin, Lloyd is more of a Horatio Alger go-getter – optimistic, ambitious, eager to please, ready to try new ideas.  In some respects, his optimism is a bit like Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  But where Chaplin had a sort of sentimental feel to his work, Lloyd’s work has more slapstick and hair-raising stuntiness – kind of like Buster Keaton, upon reflection.

Lloyd’s gags also seemed to spring organically from the plot.  In this Old-West tale, he is the youngest of the sheriff’s three sons – and considerably wimpier than his beefy brothers.  As a result, his father leaves him out of the heavy farmwork and family duties, saving the “women’s work” like laundry and housekeeping to him instead.  Lloyd’s “labor-saving” ideas for the chores are some of the film’s gags – like this hack for washing dishes.

Pa also leaves our hero behind when there’s a big town meeting to discuss building a dam on the creek. Lloyd consoles himself by putting on his father’s sheriff’s badge and playing a little wishful-thinking pretend – and that’s exactly when a traveling medicine show comes by, hoping to get a permit to set up in town for the night. Lloyd tries to tell them he’s not the sheriff – but the dancing girl catches his eye, and he forges his father’s name on the permit.

Of course his Pa finds out, and sends him to stop the show (“since you want to play sheriff so badly…”)  It…doesn’t exactly go to plan, and the show’s tent burns down.  But the dancing girl, who’s taken a shine to him too, is still in his corner.  And when calamity strikes Lloyd’s family, she encourages him to save the day.

I tried really hard to avoid mental comparisons to Keaton or Chaplin while watching this.   So many of Lloyd’s stunts seemed Keaton-esque, though, that I couldn’t avoid it. However, much of Keaton’s gags involved him trying to get out of trouble.  Lloyd has some of these as well, but also has a number of gags about clever solutions to problems – the dishes above, for one, or “disguising” himself as a woman by slipping a couple of curtain rings on his wrist.  In a scene on a wrecked pirate ship, he covers his tracks by putting his shoes on a monkey and setting it loose to create footsteps leading the opposite direction.

(For the record – you read that right, this is a film set in the Old West that also has a wrecked pirate ship and a monkey in it.  I have so many questions about that, you guys.)

Ultimately, which of the three was “better” is kind of beside the point.  They’re all good.  So I suppose it all comes down to what flavor of comedy you are looking for – the classic-Coke subtle sharpness of Buster Keaton, the Pepsi-charmingness of Charlie Chaplin, or the RC-Cola brash cleverness of Harold Lloyd.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Jazz Singer (1927)


So this is a film whose reputation proceeded it.  Everyone knows this as “the first talkie”, many may have seen clips of Al Jolson singing “Mammy”.  You may even know of the plot because you’ve seen Neil Diamond’s remake (I did, and I was also really into the soundtrack album when I was about eleven).  So watching this was more of an academic exercise for me.

But just in case, a recap: The Jazz Singer is the tale of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor on the Lower East Side. As a boy, his father is grooming him to serve as the synagogues next cantor, but Jakie’s heart is more into jazz and ragtime.  When his father catches him singing in a local beer hall, he drags him home and – while Jakie’s mother protests – whips him with his belt, and a defiant Jakie runs away.

Ten years later, Jakie is in San Francisco, and gets his big break when he sings at an amateur cabaret. Up-and-coming showgirl Mary Dale is in attendance – conveniently along with the producers of her current show – and they offer him a job with the company.  Under the name “Jack Robin”, Jakie’s star rises until he is given a lead role on Broadway alongside Mary.  He joyously returns to New York, and stops in to surprise the folks.  Mama is overjoyed to see him – but Papa is less so, and stubbornly throws Jakie out again, insisting Jakie is betraying his faith by shirking his duties as cantor.

Jakie copes by throwing himself into rehearsals, excitedly preparing for opening night. But the night of the final dress rehearsal, Mama desperately visits the theater with news – Papa is gravely ill, and will not be able to sing in the Yom Kippur service the following day.  Would Jakie consider skipping the show and singing himself, to make his dying father happy? Mary and the producers argue that the following day is the opening night, and skipping it would be career suicide.  …What on earth will Jakie do?

….As is no surprise, things are resolved at the end.  I rolled my eyes a bit over how conveniently they do, however; as well as how convenient was Jakie’s rise to fame.  The scenes with “rehearsals” and “performances” are all pretty unrealistic; I’ll grant I have a unique perspective as a former stage manager, but there were moments in the “final dress rehearsal” sequence that made me want to throw things (the rehearsal does not grind to a halt after the lead’s big number so everyone can crowd around and tell him how great he is!  It just doesn’t work that way!).

Apparently, though, this was a fairy-tale spin on the star Al Jolson’s own life. Like Jakie, Jolson was the son of a cantor who had emigrated from Lithuania to New York when Al was a boy. There is no record of Al’s father objecting to his career, however; he had already been on the vaudeville circuit for several years when aspiring writer Samson Raphaelson happened to catch one of his shows.  Raphaelson was captivated by Jolson’s style, immediately recognizing that he was singing “like a cantor”.  Subsequent chats with Jolson lead to Raphaelson first writing a short story inspired by Jolson’s story, and then the play which ultimately became The Jazz Singer.

And perhaps this is why the film’s depiction of Jewish characters was more sensitive than I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised that Papa’s strict adherence to tradition was believable – he was strict, sure, but the film happily avoided depicting devotion as ignorance.  The Rabinowitz family is pretty up-to-date in terms of other habits. There’s a poignant scene midway through Jakie’s “rise to fame” when he takes time to attend a concert performance by another canter singing “Jewish Sacred Songs”, and spends several minutes sitting in an audience reverently listening to someone sing the Kaddish.  Even a “comic relief” running gag about a series of birthday gifts people bring to Papa deals more with duplicate gifts than it does with “wow, they’re giving Papa weird things”.

….But on the other hand, two of Jolson’s big numbers have him in blackface.  It should be noted that this is a direct nod to Jolson’s own career – white performers in blackface were highly common in vaudeville at the time Jolson got his start, and Jolson was himself in blackface during the performance Raphaelson first saw.  Jolson was also an early fan of jazz and ragtime, and chose to use blackface as a way to sort of introduce them to white audiences.  However – even though Jolson apparently meant well, it’s still jarring to watch today.

(I was also surprised to note, during a post-film Youtube browse, that Neil Diamond included some blackface in his remake. It’s for a very different reason – but still feels  tacky.)

What this film is best known for, though, is the sound.  Other, earlier short films dabbled in using sound, as recording technology developed and improved. The Jazz Singer marked the first time it was used in a full-length film.  But it seems the producers hedged their bets a little, relying on intertitles for the dialogue throughout.  Instead, they used sound for all the songs – Jolson’s jazz performances, the Kaddish and the Kol Nidre in Papa’s synagogue.  There is some recorded dialogue – Jolson had a habit of chatting with the audience in between verses during his shows, and improvised some patter during the songs.

Everyone knows about the “you ain’t heard nothing yet, folks” line, but it was a rendition of “My Blue Heaven” sequence that had me riveted, delivered when a just-come-home Jakie is entertaining Mama.  Midway through the song, Jolson starts talking to Mama, played by actress Eugenie Besserer; the dialogue was wholly improvised, with Jolson promising her a series of lavish gifts.  Besserer says very little aside for flustered gasps and giggles (Jolson’s patter gets a little creepily flirtatious, given their characters’ relationship), and she doesn’t seem to have been miked well. But it felt rivetingly real in a way that I haven’t yet seen in any of these films yet – simply because of the sound.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

October: Ten Days That Shook The World (1927)

Watching October was….interesting.

Sergei Eisenstein’s film was commissioned ten years after the conflict in 1917 which gave rise to the Soviet Union. I very briefly considered reading a simple history of events so I would have a better grasp of what I was watching, but ultimately went in blind; this was meant to be a propaganda film, I reasoned, and I thought a naïve outlook would let me see the propaganda for what it was.

Save a moment or so of confusion over names and people, this was largely the case.  Eisenstein has a really heavy hand with his message, using lots of pointed imagery and montages to drive home his points. I may not have ever heard of the pacifist “Menshevik” party, for example– an alternative party to the Bolsheviks in the initial Soviet Congress – but Eisenstein kept intercutting their words with shots of a team of effete harpers, so clearly I was meant to think their message was airy and fantastical.  I also may not have ever heard of Alexander Kerensky, an intermediary government leader in opposition to the Bolsheviks – but Eisenstein kept showing him posing next to statues of Napoleon, so I was definitely meant to think he was a power-hungry dude.

Eisenstein liked to use statues in his symbolism a lot here. In addition to the Kerensky/Napoleon montage, there’s also a sequence when Kerensky is assembling his ministers inside the Winter Palace and is compared to a clockwork peacock.  There’s another sequence where a group of women is being trained how to shoot rifles, under the watchful eye of a statue depicting a mother with a child taking its first steps.  The whole film starts with a bunch of peasants working together to pull down a statue of Tsar Nicholas IV.

The Nicholas statue makes a return during a sequence critical of the provisional government that initially took control of Russia, before the Bolsheviks.  All that actually happens is that the government rallies people to defend Petrograd “in the name of God and Country”.  But those title cards are intercut and mixed in with shots of St. Basil’s Cathedral and ornate statues of Jesus, giving way to shots of Buddha statues, Aztec idols, and suchlike, giving way to overly-ornate medals on various establishment generals’ shoulders and chests – culminating in a sequence of the Tsar Nicholas statue re-assembling itself.  “God and country”, Eisenstein is saying, is shorthand for “the status quo”.

It’s striking imagery, to be sure. And it’s definitely clear what we are supposed to think of Alexander Kerensky (and also, what we are supposed to think of the General Korlinov they mention in that same sequence – whatever he did).

However – as effective as this film is at propaganda, it is pretty ineffective at storytelling. I grant that it was meant for an audience that already knew the events of October 1917, and knew who Korlinov and Kerensky and the Cossacks were, and what the ship named the Aurora did and why we should care.  But even the Soviets didn’t like it; critics panned its overly-stylized, gimmicky techniques, and the rest of the public just plain didn’t get it – they got the propaganda alright, just like I did, but they were looking for other things, like a plot.

And ultimately that’s where the propaganda falls flat.  I knew that I was supposed to think Kerensky was a sort of empty figurehead, but I wasn’t really given any indication as to why I should care what he did. Lenin was put forth as a super-cool guy, but his super-cool status seemed disconnected from anything else. There were a couple instances of thrilling heroic action sequences, but those were momentary, and moreover they spoke for themselves.  An early sequence of the provisional government squelching a rebellion is also haunting; the government shoots rioters and then raises a drawbridge to cut of their escape. Eisenstein takes pains to show us a couple of bodies stuck on the drawbridge, including one of a horse who was killed in the crossfire; the rising bridge leaves the horse pathetically dangling in midair for several minutes before it finally falls.

Those sequences speak for themselves, however. They didn’t need any still shots of statues of knights or whatever to underscore them.

So what to make of October?  Ultimate this was a very specific example of a specific filmmaker’s unique vision, and an example of how editing techniques can get an emotional tone across.  But in terms of being a complete film, it’s lacking.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The General (1926)

Oh, Buster, you’ve let me down.

The General itself is a true-to-form Keaton picture, and yes, I did laugh in places, as I always do at Buster Keaton’s work now. In fact, a short while ago I’d have been totally fine with this.  The usual stuff is there – trying to impress a girl, the obstacle thrown into his path, daring stunts and hijinks ensue.  And he is is usual skilled self.

In this case, the premise is that Keaton is a young engineer on the train line between Tennessee and Georgia in 1861, equally devoted to both his favorite locomotive (this is actually the “General” of the title) and his girl, Annabelle, who lives in one of the towns on his usual route.

However, one afternoon as he is visiting her, her brother comes home with the news of the attack at Fort Sumter, and both father and son resolve to enlist and go to war. Keaton’s girl turns to him with starry eyes and says that he should enlist as well, and he dashes off to be first at the enlistment office – but when they learn he is an engineer, they turn him down, believing him more useful in his civilian position.  As he dejectedly walks away he passes Annabelle’s father and brother, standing in line to enlist, and they try to wave him into line with them; he just shakes his head and walks off. They interpret this as cowardice on his part, and when Annabelle hears their opinion, she breaks up with Keaton.

That’s just the setup. The meat of things happens a year later, with Annabelle boarding his train to visit her father in a military hospital. But unbeknownst to them both, a team of enemy spies has secretly boarded the train, and when Keaton stops the train for a lunch break en route, they seize the locomotive and one of its freight cars – with Annabelle unexpectedly inside, hunting for something in her luggage – and take off, headed for their camp.  Keaton spots them and gives chase.

Image result for the general keaton

Cue the hijinks.  Which in this case involve pursuit by handcar, mishaps with a cannon, and rides on the cowcatcher.  There’s even a second stretch of hijinks after Keaton has managed to overhear an enemy plot, rescue Annabelle and reclaim his engine, and is racing back home ahead of the enemy, trying to save Annabelle and warn the home troops in time.  And it ends happily, with Keaton rewarded for his bravery and Annabelle happily back by his side.

Keaton based this on an actual incident from the Civil War, in which a team of Union spies actually did sneak onto a train and hijack it during a meal break, destroying the tracks in their wake and thus severing an important communication and freight line for the Confederates.  But when dramatizing this story, Keaton made an executive decision.

He made the Confederates the good guys in this movie.

Not for political reasons, most likely. In fact, Keaton was most likely just responding to the collective opinion of the day – that the Confederates had been little more than underdogs, ultimately doomed and harmless, who’d just made a mistake.  Making the underdogs the heroes of his comedy would be funnier, he reasoned, so instead of playing one of the Union spies and telling the story from that angle, he cast himself as an underdog Confederate wannabe who wins at the end.  But this was still only a mercenary outlook at worst, rather than a sympathy for the south; but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t at least considered giving the public what they want so they can sell more tickets.

Still, watching this film in 2017, shortly after the Charlestonville riots and the furor over Conferderate monuments, made me pretty uneasy; especially when Keaton tags along with the Confederate Army towards the end, riding bravely into battle behind the Stars-and-Bars.  He even serves as flagbearer during the ensuing clash at one point – it’s a moment played for laughs, still, with Keaton marching along a bluff carrying the flag and inadvertently stepping on the commander’s toe or something.  But – it was Buster Keaton carrying the Stars and Bars. And I didn’t like seeing it.

The shifting impact of history ultimately wasn’t anything Keaton couldn’t control, and I get that.  It isn’t anything he could have forseen either.  The only thing a filmmaker can do – or any artist can do, for that matter – is work with the knowledge that they have available to them at any given moment.  And at the particular moment Keaton was filming, the Confederates were being seen as noble but doomed.  The very statues that people protest today were just being put up at about the time Keaton was filming.  The NAACP was just getting off the ground, Plessy V. Ferguson was the rule of the day, and it was still four years before the Scottsboro Boys ran into their own trouble on a train.  Yes, Keaton could have made a principled stand, but he would have been a very rare individual indeed if he had; he may have very well felt that by choosing to not make his heroes plantation owners, he was taking a sympathetic stance.

And yet I still couldn’t get away that this cultural narrative later lead to Gone With The Wind and then to Brown V. Board of Education, and then to Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then Dylann Roof, and then to Richard Spencer and his thugs in Charlottesville.  Keaton couldn’t have forseen that in 1927.  But those are all things I did see in 2017.  And just like a filmmaker can only bring the knowledge they have at a given moment, a spectator also carries their own baggage, from their own era and their own time.  And that can always affect how you see something.

Image result for the general keaton

Sorry, Buster.  It’s not you, it’s me.