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The General

Comedy
80 min / 1927
RATING: 8/10

The General is equal parts comedy and action, with just a dash of romance thrown in as well. Johnnie Gray has two loves in his life: his steam engine “The General,” and his girl Annabelle. When the American Civil War begins Johnnie, like every loyal Southerner, lines up to enlist in the Confederate Army. But unbeknownst to poor Johnnie, train engineers aren’t allowed to sign up, as they are more valuable as engineers, not soldiers. Try as he might, he just can’t join the Army, and when he finally returns to Annabelle without successfully enlisting, she thinks it’s because he’s become a coward. She sends him away, telling Johnnie she will only see him again when he’s in uniform.

Johnnie leaves, heartbroken, and returns to his other great love, his steam engine. But poor Johnnie is in for even greater heartache – Northern spies steal his General and take off with it down the rails toward the North. In an instant, Johnnie goes from being sad and lonely to determined and resourceful. He steals another train and chases after the spies and the stolen General in one of the most brilliant, madcap, action-packed sequences ever caught on film.

I watched this film with teenagers and people in their twenties, thirties and forties and they all loved it. If you watch only one silent film in your life, make sure it’s The General.

The film’s copyright expired long ago, which means all sorts of companies have been free to publish it and sell their own copies. However, not all have done a good job. In the worst versions, the soundtrack doesn’t match the action onscreen – it’s just random classical music. You can get a glimpse of how a good soundtrack adds a whole other dimension by watching the Kino version’s trailer below. Watch it once with the sound, then watch it again with the sound off. It’s odd, but a good soundtrack really matters, even for (and actually, especially for) a silent film. So be sure to track down one of the good versions!


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Drama, Family, Movie Reviews

The Seahawk

Drama / Action 109 minutes / 1940 RATING: 8/10 While The Seahawk is set in 1585, and pitches Spain against England, this film was all about the politics of its day. Spain is clearly a stand-in for the Germany of 1940, and King Phillip could only have been more Hitler-esque if they had given him the small patch mustache. The story begins with Phillip laying out his plans for world domination. He demands from England that they refrain from building a fleet and offers his friendship, if they give in to his demands. Queen Elizabeth does her very best Chamberlain imitation, refusing to prepare for the clearly hostile Spain. She chooses to appease the tyrant, even as Phillip is building an armada. Then there is Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn) with his own stand-in role. He has his own ship, which is part of an English privateer fleet, the Seahawks. Even as Elizabeth appeases Phillip, the Seahawks raid Spanish towns and sink Spanish ships. Thorpe is channeling at least a little Churchill, urging the queen – and through her, the nation of England – to prepare for war. That makes this film fascinating on two very different levels. It is a fantastic swashbuckling film all on its own, and it is also a wonderful bit of anti-Nazi propaganda, intended to rally the nation to resist. Queen Elizabeth concludes the film with a speech that is a clear call for America to come join the war. "When the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men." Cautions There is a lot of fighting, with folks getting stabbed and shot. But there is no gore. Conclusion I had an opportunity to watch The Seahawk with a group of friends who, as a general rule, don't watch black and white films. A few exchanges struck them as a bit corny – acting in the 1940s did sometimes take a melodramatic turn – but the swashbuckling action and the self-sacrificial hero, the Second World War subtext, well, it swept away all their resistance. They simply couldn't help themselves: they had to love it! Jon Dykstra also reviews movies at ReelConservative.com where some of these reviews first appeared. ...


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