This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
One hundred years after he helmed his first feature as a director, Three Ages (1923), the world of cinema is once again abuzz with Buster Keaton fever. Chad Stahelski's much-adored hitman saga John Wick is as much an exercise in creative gunplay as it is a love letter to Keaton's acrobatic pratfalling—so much so that every entry features at least one clip from the stuntman supreme, playing on a television set or projected on a background wall. Likewise, the latter Mission Impossible sequels, another series that foregrounds stunt performers, have drawn on Keaton's characteristic back-breaking slapstick. As director Christopher McQuarrie said of Dead Reckoning: Part One (2023):
“If you watch The General [Buster Keaton's 1926 opus], you'll see that its influence on this movie, in particular, is absolutely evident.”
It's fitting timing then for Eureka to honour the man himself with the UK Blu-ray debut of Three Ages, created from a brand-new restoration. Acting as a pastiche of D.W. Griffith's silent epic Intolerance (1916), itself a rebuttal to the critical response to Griffith's infamous Ku Klux Klan rallying cry Birth of a Nation (1915), Three Ages follows a similar structure, intercutting between three parallel stories in different eras, each of which speak to the universal nature of romance and courtship. But where Intolerance takes love as a lofty ideal and spins a centuries-spanning melodrama out of it, Three Ages instead uses the broadness of its subject as a means by which to make a fool of Keaton's charmingly effete rube.
Split between the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and “modern times”, each of the stories follows a similar pattern. Keaton, his alter ego already well-formed here, pursues the affections of a great beauty (Margaret Leahy) only to find his efforts thwarted by a burly bully (Wallace Beery). Looked down upon for his smaller frame, inevitable clumsiness, and, most particularly, lower socioeconomic standing (one scene in the modern era sees the two men compare chequebooks, Beery pulls out a pristine book that reads “First Bank” versus Keaton's dog-eared “Last Bank”), Keaton perseveres nevertheless, and, *spoilers*, in the end he wins her affections, a love found again and again across time. Roll credits.
What makes Three Ages so watchable all these decades later is Keaton's presence as a performer, and his eye for clever visual comedy. Forever willing to make himself not only the butt of the joke, but its primary instigator, Three Ages features a few of Keaton's most well-known set pieces, such as a mismatched chariot race in which Keaton races Beery's gallant horses with a pack of dogs, even pausing mid-race to pull out a spare tire (read: dog) mid-race. Perhaps most famous of these is Keaton's unsuccessful leap between two city blocks, which ends with him falling through a series of awnings before pole vaulting through a window on an especially sturdy drainpipe, a stunt that was adjusted after Keaton failed to make the jump on the first try.
It bears saying that Three Ages lacks the wonderfully balanced physical poetry of Keaton's best works. As his first feature, the film was purposefully developed in such a way that each of the three ages could be cut and sliced into shorts should it be necessary, and structurally it shows somewhat—though the parallels drawn between each timeless romance does lend the piece a cohesive throughline. Likewise, the time between killer gags is felt at points, lacking the propulsive and precise idiocy that has since come to define his oeuvre. The magic found here is in watching a great still honing his rhythms on a larger canvas, toying with small-scale prop work right before launching into elaborate farce.
As for the restoration work, the Cohen Film Collection has truly worked magic. Certain sections are still severely damaged, but they're never worse than legible, and the rest sparkles with a quality that belies its age. Specifically, the medium close-ups—notably, a shot of Keaton's caveman bride being dragged by her hair in marital bliss—remain gorgeous, a credit to the Cohen Film Collection and Keaton and his co-director Edward F. Kline in equal measure. Another age on from its release, Three Ages remains an often spectacular work, and one you suspect whose influence will be felt for aeons to come.
- Limited Edition Slipcase [2000 Copies]
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new restoration by the Cohen Film Collection
- Reconstructed original intertitles
- Brand new audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat
- This Side of Impossible – brand new video essay by David Cairns
- Under the Flat Hat – brand new video essay by Fiona Watson
- The Six Ages of Comedy – brand new featurette based on an essay by Keaton
- Brand new interview with Ian Lavender
- Man's Genesis – 1912 short by D.W. Griffith that is parodied in Three Ages
- Video essay on the film's locations by John Bengtson
- Archival recordings of Keaton
- A collectors booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp and Imogen Sara Smith
The Eureka edition of Three Ages arrives in the UK on Blu-ray on August 21st.