Cult Movies: Buster Keaton's Three Ages remains a silent satirical gem

Buster Keaton in Three Ages
Buster Keaton in Three Ages

THREE Ages is an important film in the story of Buster Keaton. A move away from the comic shorts he'd made his name with, it was the first full-length film the legendary funny man wrote, directed and starred in, and it still stands up well today – despite the understandable dust it has accumulated in the 100 years since it first appeared.

To mark the film's centenary, Eureka Entertainment have just given it a debut UK Blu-ray release as part of their splendid Masters Of Cinema series and it's pleasing to see it receive the love and attention it so clearly deserves.

That means a lovingly curated restoration, completed last year by the Cohen Film Collection, a revealing audio commentary from film historian David Kalat and more nifty bonus features than you could shake a big and silent stick at.

As is always the key to such things, though, it's the film itself that remains the big selling point for the cinematic collector, and Three Ages is a gem just waiting to be enjoyed all over again.

An assured spoof of DW Griffith's epic Intolerance, it follows our hero's journey through history as he tries to make sense of man's first stirrings in the Stone Age, negotiate his way through the gladiator arenas of Ancient Rome and survive the artistic onslaught of the American Jazz era.

Three Ages
Three Ages

A real ground-breaker in terms of big screen historical satire, it tackles its subjects with a lightness of touch and a sense of cheeky irreverence that lays the comic groundwork for later efforts by Mel Brooks and Monty Python.

The way the forever hangdog Buster adds a little modern attitude to ancient stories, from changing a 'spare wheel' on his chariot to hitting a home run in a game of baseball with some perplexed cavemen, is a stroke of genius that may seem obvious now, but certainly didn't in 1923.

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Of course, those three sections referenced by the title could easily be seen as three shorts glued together, which could be conveniently cut into individual movies if the feature failed to connect with the public – but it's still wonderful all the same.

That trio of adventures allows Keaton – the king of cinematic clowns, after all – to pull off some seriously impressive stunts and deliver some of his finest visual gags along the way.

Inevitably, there's a thread of a story about him seeking the love of a good woman (Margaret Leahy) and fending off the brutish approaches of a big bad bully (Wallace Beery) that permeates the various fables, but really this is a straight-ahead historical spoof that lets Keaton spread his wings both as a big screen clown and accomplished director.

A proper old-fashioned knockabout comedy which only Buster Keaton could deliver, Three Ages is a riot from start to finish and a key document of an amazing figure in movie history. This timely reissue, with those aforementioned extras that include video essays, several significant shorts and featurettes, treats it with the love and respect it so clearly warrants.

Seek it out and laugh along with Keaton on his historical journeys this weekend.