(Buster Keaton Productions / UNited Artists, US 1927)
Dir: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman; prod: Joseph M. Schenck;
sc: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman; adapt: Al Boasberg,
Charles Smith, dal libro / from the book The Great Locomotive
Chase by William Pittenger; ph: J. Devereux Jennings,
Bert Haines; ed: J.S. Kell; lighting effects: Denver
Harmon; technical dir: Fred Gabourie; asst. dir: Harry
Barnes; cast: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle
Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General
Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (Southern General), Charles
Smith (il padre di Annabelle / Annabelle’s Father), Frank
Barnes (il fratello di Annabelle / Annabelle’s Brother),
Joe Keaton (Union General), Mike Donlin (Union General),
Tom Nawn (Union General), Ross McCutcheon (Norther raider),
Snitz Edwards [scenes cut after premiere]; copyright:
22.12.1926; rel: 5.2.1927; lunghezza originale / orig.
length: 7500 ft.; 35mm, 7079 ft., 79’ (24 fps), The Douris Corporation.
Didascalie in inglese / English intertitles.
Accompagnamento musicale dal vivo di / Live score by Alloy
Verso la fine della sua vita Buster Keaton disse
che era più orgoglioso di The General "che di
qualunque altro film io abbia mai fatto, perché ho portato
sullo schermo, pescato dritto dal libro di storia, un fatto vero
della Guerra Civile." La narrazione si basa su eventi realmente
accaduti, rievocati con dovizia nel libro di William Pittenger Daring
and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure, uscito
nel 1863 e ristampato nel 1893 con il titolo The Great Locomotive
Chase, con cui è tuttora in catalogo. Pittenger (1840-1904),
un caporale dell’esercito nordista, si era unito ad un gruppo di
24 uomini guidati da una spia professionista, James J. Andrews,
che riuscirono a viaggiare, camuffati da civili sudisti, dal Tennessee
fino ad Atlanta, dove si impadronirono di un treno, trainato dalla
locomotiva The General, mentre i passeggeri stavano facendo
colazione. Il loro piano era di portare il treno al Nord, verso
Chattanooga, dove si sarebbero aggregati alle truppe dell’Unione,
bruciando i ponti e tagliando ogni via di comunicazione lungo il
cammino. Il capotreno, William A. Fuller, insieme con il passeggero
Anthony Murphy, si mise all’inseguimento, prima a piedi, poi su
un carrello di servizio ed infine su tre locomotive in successione.
I cospiratori erano a pochi minuti dalla loro destinazione quando
Fuller, su The Texas, li raggiunse e costrinse a desistere.
Gran parte di essi fu arrestata, ed alcuni furono in seguito giustiziati.
(La storia fu ripresa dalla Disney nel 1956 con il titolo di The
Great Locomotive Chase.)
Il principale cambiamento che Keaton ed il suo co-regista, Clyde
Bruckman, apportarono alla storia consistette nel presentarla dal
punto di vista degli inseguitori sudisti: "Si può sempre
fare dei nordisti i cattivi", aveva detto Keaton, "ma
non si può fare del Sud un cattivo." Inoltre, i sudisti
finiscono per vincere, cosa essenziale per un finale comico. I nomi
dei personaggi furono cambiati: il capotreno William Fuller diventa
il macchinista Johnnie Gray (Keaton), che ha due amori nella vita,
la locomotiva e la fidanzata Annabelle Lee (interpretata splendidamente
da Marion Mack). La ragazza, catturata dai nordisti insieme con
la locomotiva, sostituisce Mr. Murphy come compagna d’avventura
di Johnnie. Il film, girato senza sceneggiatura, presenta nondimeno
un’esemplare struttura narrativa simmetrica, incentrata sulla sequenza
del salvataggio di Annabelle e di The General dal quartier
generale nemico. Dopo l’episodio introduttivo, in cui Annabelle
si mostra sprezzante verso Johnnie, senza capire perché venga
respinto dall’esercito, ogni tempo del film è un inseguimento
alla locomotiva, ed il secondo è un rovesciamento esatto
del primo, con la battaglia di Rock River al culmine dell’intreccio.
Keaton intendeva girare The General nei luoghi originali,
tra Atlanta ed il Tennessee, poi però decise che l’Oregon
aveva un aspetto più autentico. Anche qui si potevano trovare
ancora binari a scartamento ridotto del tipo usato all’epoca della
Guerra Civile, che ora servivano gli stabilimenti di legname e si
snodavano in modo pittoresco lungo valli, montagne e laghi. Keaton
aveva chiesto alle autorità del Tennessee che gli prestassero
la vera locomotiva General, in mostra alla stazione di Chattanooga,
ma ricevette un rifiuto. Imperterrito, fece truccare tre vecchie
locomotive ancora in servizio nei depositi di legname per farle
assomigliare a pezzi d’epoca. Un prezioso documentario casalingo
a 16mm, girato per documentare le riprese, ci mostra il regista
alle prese con binari paralleli ed una seconda locomotiva, per ottenere
incredibili inquadrature in movimento dei treni che si muovevano
a gran velocità.
La Guerra Civile vista da Keaton – le scene, cioè, degli scali
di smistamento ferroviario e l’imboscata a Rock River – non
è meno spettacolare od autentica che in The Birth of a Nation,
Gone with the Wind o The Red Badge of Courage. Egli
assunse 500 uomini della Guardia Nazionale dell’Oregon per rappresentare
gli eserciti: come sudisti indossavano uniformi grigie e marciavano
da sinistra a destra, mentre come nordisti sfoggiavano uniformi
blu e marciavano nell’altro senso. Le riprese della battaglia di
Rock River, coperte da 6 macchine da presa, si rivelarono un’impresa
drammaticamente realistica. Ci furono almeno 9 feriti, alcuni per
poco annegavano, e Keaton stesso fu messo fuori combattimento dall’impatto
di uno scoppio. Gli esplosivi incendiarono la foresta, il che bloccò
le riprese sul posto per diverse settimane, finché la pioggia
non ebbe ripulito gli effetti del fumo.
La scena più sorprendente del film è il crollo del ponte,
che scaglia una locomotiva, con relativo treno, nelle acque sottostanti.
Non furono usati modellini, e si dice che il treno giaccia tuttora,
irrecuperabile, nel letto del fiume. Costata la bellezza di 42.000
dollari, si ritiene che sia la scena più dispendiosa nella
storia del cinema muto.
Persino il volto di Keaton, come ha notato James Agee, ha l’aspetto
di uno dei ritratti di Matthew Avery. La qualità eminentemente
documentaristica della storia e dell’ambientazione rende unica anche
la sua interpretazione. Il suo personaggio non cerca mai di essere
divertente o di fare cose divertenti. Semmai, è totalmente, intensamente
concentrato sulla sua missione, come una questione di vita o di
morte. L’aspetto comico nasce dai contrattempi che gli capitano
e dall’ingegnosità con cui affronta problemi e pericoli.
L’azione drammatica e l’aspetto comico sono completamente interdipendenti.
La storia non sembra mai un semplice pretesto per la commedia, e
le gag non sono un puro abbellimento decorativo. Nondimeno, sono
tra le migliori di Keaton. Un film costruito tutto intorno ai treni
era per lui la realizzazione del sogno di una vita: "Beh, nel
momento in cui mi date una locomotiva e cose simili per giocare,
devo trovare il modo di cavarne fuori risate." The General
è infatti un’esaustiva antologia di gag ferroviarie.
Commercialmente parlando, il film fu per la United Artists un disastro.
Era costato la cifra, allora astronomica, di 415.232 dollari ed
a livello nazionale aveva avuto un incasso lordo di poco superiore.
The General fu respinto sia dai critici che dal pubblico,
evidentemente impreparati ad una commedia così ispirata,
brillante ed innovativa. Variety scrisse che era "lungi
dall’essere divertente". Robert E. Sherwood, di Life,
pensava che alcune gag fossero "di un cattivo gusto raccapricciante",
ed il New York Times lo ritenne "nient’affatto valido
come i precedenti lavori di Mr. Keaton.” Il colpo, a livello
finanziario, fu quasi fatale per la United Artists, che non avrebbe
più lasciato a Keaton una completa libertà creativa.
Il tempo, purtroppo in ritardo, ha cambiato le cose. Oggi pochi
sarebbero disposti a contestare la fama di The General non
solo come una tra le maggiori commedie, ma come uno dei migliori
film mai girati ed una delle opere d’arte più durevoli del
XX secolo.- David Robinson
Buster Keaton said, late
in his life, that he was more proud of The General "than
any picture I ever made, because I took an actual happening out
of the Civil War – out of the history book”. The
narrative is closely based on true events recalled at length in
William Pittenger’s book Daring and Suffering: A History of
the Great Railway Adventure, first published in 1863, reissued
in 1893 as The Great Locomotive Chase, and still currently
in print. Pittenger (1840-1904), a corporal in the Northern
army, joined a party of 24 men led by a professional spy, James
J. Andrews, who made their way, disguised as Southern civilians,
from Tennessee into Atlanta. There they seized a train, drawn
by the locomotive The General, while its passengers were
at breakfast. Their plan was to run the train north to Chattanooga,
where they would join up with Union troops, having burned bridges
and cut communications along the route.
The train’s conductor,
William A. Fuller, accompanied by a passenger, Anthony Murphy, set
off in pursuit, at first on foot, then on a handcar, and finally
in a succession of three locomotives. The conspirators were
within only a few miles of their destination when Fuller, on The
Texas, overtook them and forced them to abandon their prize.
Most of the party were apprehended, and several were executed.
(The story was filmed again by Disney in 1956, as The Great
The principal change Keaton and his co-director Clyde Bruckman
made to the story was to show it from the point of view of the Southern
pursuers: "You can always make villains out of the Northerners,”
said Keaton, "but you cannot make a villain out of the South.”
Moreover, the Southerners end up the victors – essential to
a comedy resolution. The names of the characters were changed:
The conductor William Fuller becomes the engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton),
with two loves in his life – his locomotive and his girlfriend
Annabelle Lee (gallantly played by Marion Mack). Annabelle
– seized by the Northerners along with the locomotive –
replaces Mr. Murphy as Johnnie’s companion in the adventure.
Shot without a script, the film has nevertheless an exemplary, symmetrical
narrative structure, centring on the sequence of the rescue of Annabelle
and The General from the enemy’s headquarters. After
the introductory episode – in which Annabelle Lee spurns Johnnie,
not understanding why he is refused by the army – each half
of the film is a locomotive chase, with the second a direct reversal
of the first. The Battle of Rock River provides the climactic
Keaton at first intended to shoot The General in the
original locations, between Atlanta and Tennessee, but decided that
Oregon looked more authentic. In Oregon, too, he could still
find narrow-gauge tracks of the kind used in the Civil War period,
now serving the timber mills, and winding picturesquely around valleys,
mountains, and lakes. Keaton asked the Tennessee authorities
to loan him the real General locomotive, which was on display
in the Chattanooga railroad station, but he was refused. Undeterred,
he made-over three aged locomotives still in use in the lumber camps
to look like real period engines. Some precious 16mm home-movie
reportage of the shooting reveals that he worked with parallel tracks
and a second locomotive to achieve the astonishing travelling shots
of the fast-moving trains.
Keaton’s restaging of the Civil War – the scenes of
the railway marshalling yards and the ambush at Rock River –
is no less spectacular or authentic than The Birth of a Nation,
Gone With the Wind, or The Red Badge of Courage.
For his armies he engaged 500 men from the Oregon National Guard
– as the Southerners they wore grey uniforms and marched from
left to right, while as Northerners they adopted dark blue uniforms
and marched the other way. The filming of the Rock River battle
– covered by 6 cameras – proved an alarmingly realistic
engagement. At least 9 men were injured, several almost drowned,
and Keaton himself was knocked out by the force of an explosion.
The explosives set off a forest fire, which caused location production
to be halted for several weeks until rain had cleared away the effects
of the smoke.
The most astonishing scene in the film is the collapsing
bridge which hurls a locomotive and its entire train into the water
below. No models were used, and the train is said still to
lie immovable in the riverbed. At $42,000 this is reputed
to have been the most costly shot in the entire silent cinema.
Even Keaton’s face, as James Agee pointed out, has the look
of a portrait by Matthew Brady. The dominant documentary quality
of the story and setting gives a unique quality to Keaton’s performance.
His character never appears to be trying to be funny or to do funny
things. Rather, he is totally and intensely concentrated on
his life-or-death mission. The comedy is generated by the
mishaps which assault him, and by the ingenuity of his solutions
to the problems and hazards. Dramatic action and comic business
are one and interdependent. The story never appears simply
an excuse for the comedy, nor are the gags a decoration planted
on the story. Even so, these gags include some of Keaton’s
greatest. A film built around trains was the culmination of
a lifetime’s fascination for Keaton: "Well, the moment you
give me a locomotive and things like that to play with, as a rule
I find some way of getting laughs out of it.” The General
is an exhaustive anthology of railroad gags.
The film was a commercial disaster for United Artists. It
had cost a then-phenomenal $415,232, and grossed little more than
that sum domestically. The General was largely rejected
by critics and audiences, who were evidently not yet ready for a
comedy of such unprecedented inspiration, innovation, and brilliance.
Variety wrote that it was "far from funny”; Life’s
Robert E. Sherwood thought some of its gags "in gruesomely
bad taste”, and the New York Times considered it "by
no means as good as Mr. Keaton’s previous efforts”.
The financial blow was almost fatal to United Artists, and Keaton
was never again to be allowed complete creative freedom. Time,
albeit too late, brings its changes. Today few would dispute
The General’s reputation not just as one of the greatest
comedies, but as one of the finest films ever made and one of the
20th century’s enduring works of art.–David Robinson
Score for The General
Alloy has been talking about writing a score for The General
for more than a decade. It’s an obvious film for us. There’s
such a kinetic quality to the film, with the train chugging back
and forth throughout the story, that we thought we could be particularly
effective in writing music that mirrored the movie’s rhythm. We
felt that our style of music, with its strong emphasis on percussion,
would be ideal for the film.
In the spring of 2003 David Shepard suggested that Alloy create
a score for the film that he could use on a DVD, along with our
existing score for Steamboat Bill, Jr. We agreed immediately
and then started trying to make arrangements to perform it live.
I talked to Bill Pence of the Telluride Film Festival, who had previously
suggested we tackle The General, and he agreed to host
the premiere of our score at the Film Festival.
The next step was to locate the print we would tour with. At David
Shepard’s suggestion, I contacted Tim Lanza, who manages the Rohauer
Collection (now called the Douris Corporation). The Rohauer collection
contains the best original material on the film. Tim had worked
with Alloy only the previous year with the Black Pirate.
I was pretty sure that we would be able to make some arrangements
with him. As we had done with the Black Pirate, Alloy funded
a new print which was struck from the existing negative. The Rohauer
collection has the original camera negative of The General,
in nearly mint condition. A couple of decades back, they made
an excellent safety neg from the nitrate camera neg. Our print,
struck by John Allen of Cinema Arts in Pennsylvania, comes from
that safety neg. Our new print is astoundingly beautiful - crisp,
sharp, excellent contrast, and nearly scratchless.
When David Shepard sent us the video copy of the film, we started
working. We first transfered the video to our computer (a Mac G4,
running Digital Performer). After watching the film a couple of
times, we started going through the film scene by scene. We always
skip the first scene, usually the titles, and leave it till last.
As we ran a particular scene, the three of us would improvise ideas
and record them to the computer. Unlike most "orchestras"
Alloy works collaboratively. Any one of us (there are only 3 members)
may suggest an idea. We’ll play around with ideas until we find
something that we all like. Alloy works quickly at this stage, making
up new song ideas almost as quickly as we can record them.
Next we’ll start trying to take the simple ideas and turn them into
songs. This process takes much longer than writing the simple theses.
Usually there will be several sections for each song, and a different
song for each scene in the film. Each song is comprised of several
different melodies or rhythms. There are usually bridges between
these sections and between one song and the next. This process takes
quite a bit of time, but it is what makes the music really interesting
and makes the film flow naturally.
As soon as we have a section we’re happy with, we’ll record it into
the computer. Usually in one or two takes we have one we are satisfied
with. Because of the numerous percussion instruments, we use lots
of microphones and set them up so that each is feeding into a channel
of the computer. Typically we’ll have 16 tracks ready to record
at any time. We’ll shut off the ones we’re not using for that particular
song. In this way, we can record quickly without additional setup.
We have learned to do all this ourselves, so that we don’t need
to hire an audio engineer. After a few listens, we’ll fix any songs
we’re not happy with, occasionally having to come up with a entirely
new song idea.
Even though there is a great deal of drumming in this show, we found
ourselves relying on the sound traditional orchestral instruments
rather than our notorious “rack of junk”. Of course,
many of these orchestral instruments are played by Roger Miller
on his Kurzweil sampling synthesizer. Because of the period setting
of the film we instinctively knew that a more modern sound wouldn’t
work. Many of the scenes have no percussion at all. Terry Donahue
and I (Alloy’s percussionists) found ourselves contributing
an unusual amount of melody – Terry on the accordion and musical
saw, and me playing clarinet.
The next step in the recording process is the overdubbing of sound
effects. Because of the precision needed for timing of the effects,
we do each one individually. If it’s a little late (they usually
are a 1/10 of second late) we’ll move them to the precise moment.
This is the one thing for which the computer is indispensable. Before
our studio was computerized, all the sound effects had to be performed
“live” with no way to easily fix a misplaced effect.
It took a lot more practice in those days to get the sound effects
For the General one of the challenges was getting all the
gunshots. During the battle scene at the end, there are literally
hundreds of them. We started by creating “gunshots”
by recording snare drum hits. Cannons were a combination of snare
and bass drum, or floor tom tom. It took a whole day to record a
variety of guns, cannons and exploding shells and put them in the
proper place. In the end, we used dozens of different sounds so
that the various explosions sounded different from one another.
The last step in the recording process is to mix the entire score.
This process takes almost as long as the recording. We spend a couple
of weeks carefully balancing the levels of the many tracks, equalizing
the sounds, and adding reverb.
Over the last decade or more, I have been subtly improving the sound
of our recordings. I have come to the conclusion that the pristine
recording, that is the goal of most recorded music, doesn’t
work well for our silent films. I have been experimenting with using
fewer microphones, using more omni mics, and using old style mics.
I am using more reverb (both natural and digital). The effect of
these techniques is to smooth out the often harsh sound of our percussion
and to make the whole recording sound like it was performed in a
concert hall instead of our small studio.
The General took us about a month to write and record.
The DVD recording was done and sent off to Image Entertainment to
be mated with the film.
Although we had finished the composition we were still unable to
perform the score. Typically Alloy spends as much as a couple of
months practicing before we premiere our new scores. The General
was written and recorded in April 2004. We then started practicing
for our premiere in September in Telluride Colorado. We probably
rehearsed the film 30 or more times. This score seems quite simple
- there are a number of themes that recur through the film. But
in reality it’s very hard for us to perform. The themes, although
they recur, are often played at different tempos (usually to match
the speed of the train). It’s hard to remember exactly what tempo
a particular song is played for a particular scene. Also there are
lots of sound effect that we perform live. It’s always difficult
to get the timing just right on these. There is no substitute for
extensive (and often boring) rehearsal.
With the work finished, a successful premiere, and now about 25
performances under our belt, we can look back and judge our own
score. We are very satisfied with this project, and feel that it
is one of our best efforts to date (The General is our
20th feature length score). Our style is gradually shifting toward
more traditional music. At least that’s true for this film
with it’s 19th century setting. We have become much more adept
at matching our music to the action of the film. Our scores have
become more and more complex over the years, with each scene change
or subtle mood change being mirrored by our music. Even though it
was the mechanical rhythms of the train that attracted us to this
project, it is Keaton’s subtle emotions that make this film
so satisfying. Hopefully we have underscored and amplified these
subtle emotions with our music.–Ken Winokur / Alloy Orchestra
(June 27, 2004)