The Railrodder: Buster Keaton’s Canadian film

Buster Keaton approaching the Chateau Laurier and the central train station (now the Senate of Canada building) on a railway line which used to run along the Rideau Canal (it’s now Colonel By Drive).

(US, 1965)
Directed by Gerald Potterton

Review by Barbara Popel

Did you know that the great Buster Keaton’s last silent film was about Canada? And that the director also directed Heavy Metal and was an animator on Yellow Submarine? The film was The Railrodder, a 25-minute, tourist-promo film made by the National Film Board in 1965. The director was Gerald Potterton. The Railrodder is vintage Keaton, which means it’s full of one-of-a-kind stunts and gentle humour.

The story is simple and whimsical. Buster Keaton is a British gentleman reading a newspaper on a bridge near Big Ben in London. He sees a full-page ad – “SEE CANADA NOW!” Well, that decides it! He jumps from the bridge into the Thames; in the next scene, he is walking out of the Atlantic Ocean onto a deserted Nova Scotia beach, his clothes spotless. He sees a sign next to a railway track: “PACIFIC OCEAN – WEST – 3982 1/2 MILES.” He starts walking, determined to reach the Pacific. What a hard journey this is going to be! But then he comes upon an unattended, one-man, open-top, CN Rail maintenance vehicle, commonly known as a speeder, parked on the track. He sits in the driver’s seat and accidentally puts the vehicle in gear; it speeds off down the track.

He never leaves the speeder. It has everything he needs in its little storage compartment which seems to have an infinite capacity. From it, Keaton pulls a huge map, a fancy tea service, a blanket and pillow, a frying pan and some eggs, a wash basin, a mop and dustpan, a big box camera, even a huge buffalo coat.

And so he speeds across the Maritimes, past Quebec City, into and out of Montreal, through Ottawa. You’ll love the footage of him approaching the Chateau Laurier and the central train station (now the Senate of Canada building) on a railway line that used to run along the Rideau Canal (it’s now Colonel By Drive). Then ever westward through magnificent Canadian Shield and Prairie scenery (and even into a buffalo herd!) and finally into the Rockies several more mountain ranges beyond. He finally arrives in the Port of Vancouver. Soon after, Keaton reaches the Pacific Ocean. Ah, success!

What happens next is priceless. While Keaton is admiring the view, a Japanese gentleman walks out of the Pacific, hops onto the speeder and takes off towards the east. Keaton does a double take, shrugs, and begins his long walk back to the Atlantic Ocean.

Technically, the film couldn’t be better. The direction, camerawork and editing are all what you’d expect from an NFB production – flawless. The soundtrack is great – evocative train noises interspersed with music by Canadian composer Eldon Rathburn. But it’s the charming, innovative script written by Keaton and his wonderful acting that place this film in the pantheon of great silent comedies.

Here’s a bonus! While filming The Railrodder, the NFB filmed a “making of” documentary called Buster Keaton Rides Again. It has some priceless footage, including Keaton arguing with Potterton about gags Keaton wanted to do but which Potterton thought were too dangerous. (Keaton invariably won these arguments.) Keaton also tells wonderful anecdotes, and there are snippets from some of his other, famous, silent-era films. During the filming of The Railrodder, Keaton celebrated his 69th birthday.

Both films are “must sees” for any Buster Keaton fan.

Running time: The Railrodder, 25 minutes; Buster Keaton Rides Again, 55 minutes
Rated: General
Available: the NFB website

Barb Popel has been an avid filmgoer since the early 1970s. In her twice-monthly column “Magic in the Dark” in, she recommends upcoming films at the ByTowne and the Mayfair.

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