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American Civil War epic gets a fresh perspective in new UEA book

Fresh insights into one of the greatest films of the silent era are revealed in a newly published book from a University of East Anglia (UEA) researcher.

Ninety years ago, in the summer of 1926, filming started on The General, which was co-written and directed by the comedian and filmmaker Buster Keaton, who also played the lead. The film recreates a famous Civil War episode – a daring Northern raid into Southern territory – from the perspective of a Southern locomotive engineer, and, unlike the war, The General ends with a catastrophic defeat for the North.

This hugely ambitious production was meant to rival the grand epics of the silent era, and cost about twice as much as the average Hollywood movie at the time. It was premiered at the Capitol in New York, then the largest movie theatre in the world.

Despite being a commercial and critical failure when first released, The General was re-released in the 1960s and has since been recognised as one of the best American films of all time. It is widely regarded as the greatest achievement in Keaton’s long career, which took him from being a child star on the vaudeville stage in the early 1900s to appearing in movies from 1917 onwards. This year marked the 50th anniversary of Keaton’s death, in February 1966.

Drawing on a wide range of archival sources Peter Krämer, a senior lecturer in film studies at UEA, takes a fresh look at The General, which was released in February 1927, toward the end of the era of silent cinema in the United States.

Published on 15 July as a British Film Institute (BFI) Film Classic, Mr Krämer’s book places The General in the context of Keaton’s long career on stage and screen, and of Hollywood cinema in the 1920s. It explores how Keaton came to select and realise his grandest project, and offers the first detailed comparison between the film and the book it was based upon, William Pittenger’s Capturing a Locomotive: A History of Secret Service in the Late War (1885).

Mr Krämer’s systematic and detailed analysis of the film highlights its distinctive style and thematic concerns, revealing complexity in its apparently simple story and tragedy in its happy ending. The book also examines the marketing and financial performance of The General and explains why its release was a turning point in Keaton’s career, leading to the loss of his studio and of his independence.

Mr Krämer said: “Most people think the film has a happy ending, but I am trying to show that actually things don’t work out and that it’s quite tragic. Keaton’s character is likely to lose the two loves of his life for the sake of becoming what he think he should be – a soldier.

“The Civil War is so influential in US film culture. While other movies tended to show Southern society, and indeed slavery, in a positive light, The General offers a subtle but forceful critique of Southern militarism.

“I hope this book can serve as an invitation, encouraging readers to turn, or return, to the voluminous literature on Keaton, to dig deeper into the archives, and to immerse themselves once again in The General and Keaton’s other films, in the process gaining both enjoyment from, and further insights into, the work of this unique filmmaker and performer.”

Dr Krämer has written and edited a number of books, including two previous BFI Film Classics on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2014) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010).

The General, a BFI Film Classic, will be published 15 July 2016 by Palgrave.