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A scene from The General. Critics thought Buster Keaton’s battlefield jokes were in poor taste.
A scene from The General. Critics thought Buster Keaton’s battlefield jokes were in poor taste.


A Civil War story more visually stunning than Gone With the Wind Add to ...

Gone With the Wind is scheduled for a Blu-ray release on Nov. 17, and next Tuesday brings Kino's Blu-ray edition of Buster Keaton's 1926 silent film, The General . If you must choose between the two, both set during the U.S. Civil War, heed the counsel of Orson Welles. When he introduced The General on television in 1971, Welles called it "100 times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind ." He also praised it as "one of the great films of all time," which wasn't climbing too far out on a limb, since The General regularly shows up on top-100 lists of cinema's greatest hits, along with Welles's Citizen Kane .

When war breaks out between South and North in 1861, Union soldiers sneak down from the north to steal a Confederate locomotive called the General. Confederate train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton, who also co-directed and co-wrote the film) gives chase in another locomotive. Cue the elaborate stunts and gags. At one point, hundreds of soldiers, covered wagons and horses thunder across the plain in the background while Gray, chopping wood on the train in the foreground, remains oblivious. At another, sitting on the cowcatcher of his moving locomotive, Gray knocks a board from between two railway ties with a perfectly aimed toss of another board. Keaton spent long hours preparing such moves and made them look easy.

Many critics dismissed the movie on its original release. Variety said no one could film a chase "for almost an hour and expect results." Robert E. Sherwood faulted "the scantiness of his material" and said Keaton's battlefield jokes were in bad taste. Ah well, posterity has had the last laugh.

The Blu-ray borrows its bonus features from last year's Kino DVD, including the Welles introduction and three separate musical scores, one of them composed and conducted by Carl Davis. The picture, which looked fine on DVD, looks even better on Blu-ray. The sepia image, which echoes pictures taken during the Civil War by photographer Mathew Brady, has only a few speckles to betray the fact that the movie is now 83 years old, closer in time to the 1861-65 war than to 2009.

While watching The General , I wondered whether Blu-ray will embrace less famous older films, beyond the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca . But then I realized that even on regular DVD, older films are in a state of uncertainty. Warner Bros., together with U.S. cable channel Turner Classic Movies, has begun manufacturing DVDs of many of its older movies solely on demand. If an American (sadly, the project ships only to U.S. addresses) wants one of more than 300 titles listed at warnerarchive.com, he can order the film, which will be transferred to DVD and sent to him. No stores are involved. Among the gems available: Hot Millions , starring Peter Ustinov, and The Beggar's Opera , starring Laurence Olivier.

TCM has just announced a similar arrangement with Universal Studios Home Entertainment (tcm.com). Titles include Remember the Night (1940, starring Barbara Stanwyck and written by Preston Sturges) and Murders in the Zoo (1933). A TCM spokeswoman says the Universal offer is open to Canadians. Whether the manufactured-to-order approach indicates an expansion of the DVD market (more titles) or a contraction (steering away from general releases) is an open question.

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