Last Christmas, my grandfather was looking over Empire's 5-star films. He got excited when he flicked through to 'G' and found a 1926 film I'd never heard of by the name of The General. I assume that this was probably because it was a film that featured at the beginning of his movie-watching life and had fond memories of how 'it was better in his day'.
I reviewed this film on Sunday, 17th June this year. I had a note in the review stating that I'd never heard of Buster Keaton, but here's a review of the film that my grandfather was raving about. Within an hour and a half of the review going live, I was immediately lambasted for having never heard of Buster Keaton. The review was positive but the crime was already committed - I admitted to having never heard of one of the great silent actors.
I would rank The General in the top 5 films I've watched from the 500 out of those I'd never seen before (alongside Casablanca and Citizen Kane, along with the surprise and probably controversial entries of Amelie and The Crucible). Despite being a film about a train going from right-to-left and then left-to-right (the actors famously changed costume after filming a scene and running the other direction), there was more to the story than that. It is about Keaton's daredevil stunts being pulled off with immaculate ease with a loosely connected romantic twist. A scene of him sitting on the runners of a train was immensely dangerous, but only if you understand how difficult it is to start a train without spinning the wheels.
|Buster Keaton's famous stunt - simple, dangerous and very funny|
After watching the film, I showed my 14-year-old brother the DVD case and told him that this was a film he needed to watch. Unsurprisingly, he turned up his nose. Not because he doesn't trust my judgement but because I would have done exactly the same. After showing him Keaton-on-the-runners, I then showed him another 4 minute scene I'd found on YouTube. When this was over I was ordered to return to fetch him the DVD box - he wanted to know what happened. Later, he realised that he'd just enjoyed a film that is 71 years old than him.
Of course, The General isn't the only pre-1940's film that I've enjoyed since starting the challenge. The Cabinet of Caligari (1920) I awarded 4 stars - which was the same for the Russian epic Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate (1926). Moving into the 1930's and the majority of films have been given 5 stars and thus agreeing with Empire's reviews, including another silent masterpiece - Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). In fact, the only pre-1940's film I haven't awarded 4 or 5 stars to is Alexander Nevsky (1938) which dubiously holds the honour of Worst Film Played Through The Family DVD Player.
Obviously I am watching the pick of the crop according to Empire Magazine and there are bound to be a few rotten tomatoes out there, but at the end of the day a film review is just one person's opinion and their view is not necessarily one I might share. How is it then that these golden oldies regularly score so high in my view too? More importantly, why is nobody watching these classics any more?
Undoubtedly TV companies could pick up cheap deals to broadcast these older films, or potentially show out of copyright films without costing them a penny. Many though, choose not to for fear of losing out in hotly contested ratings battles leaving these films to be picked up by collectors and shown in local cinema clubs. Meanwhile, James Bond plays on a continuous loop picking up the latest film when it becomes available. Could we at least have a chance of seeing the origins of cinema rather than Sean Connery being served his hundredth Vodka Martini this week?
|This is where you have to ride if you drink too many Vodka Martinis|
It's all well and good the youngest generation enjoying the latest 3D film to be shown at their local IMAX - in films such as Prometheus and The Avengers the graphics are simply brilliant - but films are more than just about the latest technology. Chaplin, Keaton and co. didn't have IMAX, 3D, colour or even sound and their movies are just as watchable today as they were eighty years ago.
Over the next month I challenge you to watch at least one pre-1940 film. Here's a link for the out-of-copyright The General available for free on YouTube so if you are running low on imagination, you still have no excuse.
Don't make my mistake of forgetting where the latest films came from. Spread the love for the origins of cinema.