The Railrodder (sic)

In 1964, director Gerald Potterton (of Heavy Metal fame) contacted Buster Keaton to star in a short movie where he would have to cross Canada on a single person railway “speeder”.  Keaton had been a silent film star since the early 1900s and was a huge box-office draw for short and feature films; acting, directing and doing his own stunts.  In the 50s his career was resurrected with a variety of television appearances and the airing of his short films. [1]

In the movie Keaton, an American, plays the role of an Englishman who reads an ad in the newspaper urging him to “See Canada!”  The way he imagines Canada is very stereotypical – trees, Mounties, wilderness, natives and wild animals.  The entire film is filled with stereotypes – the opening scene set in England to the sound of Big Ben chiming and other scenes of London, England.

One question I asked myself is whether it’s Potterton, an English director, who makes fun of his nation for the way they envision Canada, or is it American Keaton poking fun at the British for their views on the colony? Obviously, in 1964, England and America must have had a somewhat more realistic idea of Canada than that.  Possibly, after all, there are truths in these stereotypes, even if they don’t tell the whole story of Canada.  Possibly it’s just an idea of someone who loves Canada to show some of the amazing things the country has to offer; the film was imagined as a travelogue to be shown in theatres worldwide.[2]

When the movie came out, the reviews were mixed: With some critics arguing that there was too much scenery and not enough Keaton.[3]  I totally disagree. I think what makes this movie funny is the interaction-or lack of interaction- between Keaton and the landscape. Indeed, with a camera working in a lot of different angles, we watch Keaton too busy repairing his railway speeder to notice that the bridge his vehicle is on is swinging over the Lachine canal to let a boat go by.  Also, and this is the part that made me smile the most, our English tourist is having a very precious moment at teatime with Bison staring at him.  They cannot, however, disturb the serenity that a cup of tea is bringing – another example of the use of stereotypes for comedic effect.

In the end, Keaton reaches the Pacific Ocean and finally descends from the vehicle to take in the coast, only to have someone walk out of the water – dressed identically to our hero – and take the railway car back east, where Keaton’s adventure began.

I enjoyed this movie and I had fun to identify some of the stereotypes that I was familiar with, having come from outside of Canada.  I also enjoyed trying to pick out the places that I have seen, such as those shots of Montreal and Quebec City that were identifiable to me.   Overall, this short “travelogue” was fun and interesting and totally worth the 25 minutes to watch.

[1] Albert Ohayon, ‘’Buster Keaton rides the rail in Canada’’, NFB/Blog, December 11, 2009, http://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2009/12/11/buster-keaton-rides-the-rails-in-canada/ 2014/10/08/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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