The Navigator (1924) Review

9/5/2016

The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp

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★★★★☆

The Navigator is another delightful and important silent film directed by Buster Keaton. It is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which foreshadowing the work of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat filled with confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery. This film, perhaps more than any other Buster Keaton film, cemented his legacy alongside his comedic counterparts Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. The Navigator is a wonderful film to be viewed by all lovers of classic cinema.

The Navigator is an essential Buster Keaton film, and one of his first great films, following Sherlock, Jr. It contains some of Keaton’s best stunts and is based on the screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer for other great comedies, including the works of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a writer for other famous Buster Keaton films, such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The Cameraman, and The General. Later, in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Buster Keaton claiming he needed it for a hunting trip, and instead, he drove himself to a restaurant in Santa Monica and shot himself in the bathroom. Some have speculated this was because he didn’t have any career left after being ushered out of film and television with the rise of talkies and his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles.

At any rate, the film tells the story of Rollo Treadway, the son of a wealthy family played by Buster Keaton, who sees an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to purchase honeymoon tickets and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house and proposes to a girl, Betsey O’Brien, played by Kathryn McGuire. However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads to the ship that night, but he winds up boarding from the wrong dock. He boards The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a small country at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and she boards the ship, as well. Both passengers eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, after a series of gags and they are nearly rescued by another ship that turns away, when Treadway raises the wrong flag. They develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground on a remote island filled with cannibals. While Treadway is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the natives but when he emerges in his suit from the ocean, he scares off the cannibals and the couple tries to escape in a small dinghy but it becomes filled with water as the cannibals close in. At the last moment, a submarine surfaces and saves Betsey and Rollo.

The idea for the film came to Buster Keaton -an idea of two wealthy spoiled children who are cast adrift and must learn to survive together. The USAT Buford, named after the prominent Union Civil War hero. was the actual boat used in the film and it was re-purposed from use the Spanish American War and World War I. It was also used to deport radicals during the first so-called Palmer Raids of the “Red Scare”, where socialists and anarchists were deported from the United States to Russia, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. It was also later dubbed the “Red Ark.” Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shooting for the underwater scenes was originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool that unfortunately broke under the wight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay for, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only reportedly be underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. The film was Buster Keaton’s biggest blockbuster of his career. Co-director, Donald Crisp, left the production for the underwater filming, as Keaton was displeased with his work.

Aristotle, Oedipus, and Greek Tragedy

There has been a longstanding debate, dating back to Aristotle, regarding the purpose or telos of tragedy, and whether or not the key “tragic” element is the result of a unique or particular character flaw caused by the protagonist. In other words, is Oedipus merely a flawed human being who has brought about the destruction of himself, his family, and his city of Thebes? Is King Lear’s madness, and the subsequent downfall of his kingdom, the result of his own tragic undoing? It is a popular scavenger hunt for modern academics to search through the psyche of King Lear or Oedipus to find some fatal flaw -some poor decision they made as in the case of King Lear and his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The purpose of this mode of scholarship is to uncover a convenient and easily digestible moral lesson from the tragedy.

Truly, a case can be made that Sophocles and Shakespeare offer tragedies to educate the polis, though perhaps not by mere moral allegory. Or at least this is not an Aristotelian reading of tragedy, according to Aristotle’s Poetics.

In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that all art is mimesis (imitation) and that all forms of tragedy are imitations of “actions and life” and not of “people” (1453-1454b). A tragedy is an imitation of one whole action, not a person. What is key to a story like Oedipus Tyrannus, is the changing of opposing and unpredictable events, such as when the old Corinthian messenger appears at Thebes to ease Oedipus’s mind, but his story actually does the opposite and sends Oedipus’s life into a tailspin. The action has already been complete. Oedipus merely realizes the tragedy of his life. This scene is composed of reversal, discovery, and suffering. In this way, tragedy imitates “fear and pity” (1452b). Everything Oedipus believes is reversed, and the oracle is proved right.

The_Plague_of_Thebes
Oedipus and Antigone by Charles Jalabert (1842)

Tragedies, according to Aristotle, ought not to show men going from good to bad fortune as this is “repellent” and is not pitiable, and also not the converse for this is un-tragic. Therefore, Aristotle famously claims that a tragedy must beautifully show men “not surpassing in virtue and justice” so that they do not fall on account of some character flaw,  for they are imperfect by nature, but rather “on account of some missing of the mark” (1453b10). What does he mean by missing the mark? He uses this language elsewhere in the Politics as well as the Rhetoric. For Aristotle, there is a certain “mark” or “telos” in all things: nature, politics, art, and so on. The aim of human life is excellence or virtue understood as happiness by contemplation, the aim of the city is happiness and harmony in parallel to human happiness, the aim of poetics is catharsis.

In order to clarify, Aristotle uses Oedipus as an example to show how the spectator experiences katharsis – perhaps a purging of pent up primal desires, or also a kind of cleansing. This word, now written as catharsis, is meant to convey what he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is that all virtues of character are directed at an action that is beautiful, in itself, and this is the good. Therefore, the tragic action befalls an ignorant person who comes to realize the highest purpose of his life is no longer possible: his happiness in life is made impossible. He has “missed the mark.” The tragic hero must be relatable in his complexity, and the tragic elements cannot merely be the result of petty character flaws. In a word, the downfall of Oedipus is not a fault of his own, nor susceptible to modern psychoanalysis (for Aristotle had no notion of anger or spiritedness –thumos– as being a kind of character flaw as defined in the Nicomachean Ethics) but rather the destruction of Oedipus and his family is terrifying, just as the suffering in his life is pitiable. This is the teaching of Oedipus: that people in the audience are elevated (katharsis) when reminded that they, noble and pious people, can see a tragic fate, despite all their best efforts to appease the gods and do what is right. Amor fati is the teaching par excellence.


For this reading I used Joe Sachs’s masterful translation of Aristotle’s Poetics.

Notes on Aeschylus

Often called the “father of tragedy”, Aeschylus is known for taking the tragic art to new heights by introducing a creative new approach to ancient theatron. Prior to Aeschylus, drama typically included one protagonist and a chorus, however Aeschylus minimizes the role of the chorus and introduces a crop of new characters. Aristotle later noted the importance of the plot for Aeschylus, more so than characters.

Aeschylus is rumored to have been born near Athens at Eleusis where he worked at a vineyard until the god Dionysus visited him in a dream and he began writing tragedies. He was a devoted supporter of the Greek cause, as it is generally believed he fought against the army of Darius at Marathon in 490 BC where his brother was killed. He is believed to have died in 455-456 BC at Gela on the coast of Sicily. A later comedian developed an amusing story of Aeschylus dying due to a bird dropping a tortoise onto his bald plate. His grave, which made no mention of his dramatic achievements, makes clear mention of his defense of the Greeks against the Persians.

Contemporary estimates suggest he wrote upwards of ninety plays, seven of which have survived. He is also believed to have won at least 13 first prizes at festival competitions, such as the Great Dionysia, a celebration of Dionysus. The oldest tragedy from the classical world is Aeschylus’s Persai written in 472, and it recounts the Persian defeat of Xerxes at Salamis as they return home to Susa dejected and unfavored by the gods for venturing too far beyond their bounds. It notable for being told from the Persian perspective. The Seven Against Thebes, is the third part, and only surviving part, of Aeschylus’s Oedipus trilogy. Part one apparently told of how Lauis transgressed the gods, having a son despite the oracle’s warnings, part two tells the story of Oedipus and how he killed his own father, and Seven Against Thebes tells of Oedipus’s two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who battle one another for control of Thebes, ultimately killing one another and ending the curse on their family brought on by Laius. In the Suppliants, the Danaids have fled Egypt and are granted asylum by Pelasgus in Argos. The Oresteia is, of course, Aeschylus’s masterpiece and is unique for favoring human justice over divine retribution and fate. The last play is dubiously written by Aeschylus and is called Prometheus Bound, it tells of Prometheus who is bound on a rocky crag as several gods approach him wanting to know a secret that will destroy the tyrant Zeus. When Prometheus refuses, he is cast into Hades for more torture.

At one time in the classical world only one complete edition of his works survived and it was taken to Alexandria, Egypt to be reproduced, however the library burned and the complete edition of Aeschylus was lost forever.

His plays were performed at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens at the great festival. The backdrop of the plays was called the skene, where we derive the word “scene” or “scenery” from. On the first day of the festival, men and boys would sing dithyrambs, songs accompanied by a flute dedicated to the god Dionysus and recounting a certain part of his life. The next three days would each include a tragedian who would present a tragic cycle each day, and each would end with a burlesque, overtly sexual satyr play. The the sixth day of the festival comedies would be performed.

Aeschylus’s influence has been enormous. As recently as 1968, Bobby Kennedy quoted Edith Hamilton’s translation of Aeschylus while on the presidential campaign trail. He quoted it in the context of his own sorrow for losing John, but also as a plea for unity on the night of Martin Luther King jr.’s death. The quote was later inscribed on Kennedy’s gravestone.


For this reading I used the David Grene translation as part of his translations of the complete Greek tragedies with Richmond Lattimore.

Notes On Plato’s Euthyphro

At the outset of Plato’s Euthyphro, the pious Euthyphro is astonished to find Socrates at the Archon’s judicial court rather than hanging around the Lyceum where he usually spends his days. Socrates explains that he is being indicted by a young and unknown man named Meletus who claims Socrates is corrupting the youth by not believing in the gods and that he is creating new gods (Socrates regularly refers to a divine sign or daemon that guides him).

Euthyphro, on the other hand, is a religious zealot. He has come to court to prosecute his own father for bounding a servant who killed a slave. Euthyphro’s father sent a request to the leaders to ask what should be done with the servant, but during that time the man died in the ditch. Euthyphro claims this is an act of impiety, regardless of intent. He claims to have superior knowledge of piety and impiety. Thus, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss the subject of piety. What is piety?

In his first definition, Euthyphro defines piety as his current activity -prosecuting wrongdoers (6d-6e). When Socrates reminds Euthyphro that he has not given an adequate definition, Euthyphro restates his position to say ‘what is dear to the gods is pious and the opposite for impiety.’

Socrates then engages Euthyphro in a discussion about the differences among the gods, such as discord, and how each are spawned by love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Each god is different -what is loved by the gods is also hated by the gods. How, then, can one man claim knowledge of piety?

The third definition provided by Euthyphro: piety is what all the gods love, and impiety is what the gods hate. To this Socrates asks what the cause of piety is -are the pious loved by the gods and therefore pious? Or are they loved by the gods and in so doing become pious?

The conversation leads to a question of the just and the pious, and whether they are the same thing. Eventually Euthyphro responds that they are the same but only parts are concerned with the care of the gods, and once again Socrates tries to reason about the care of the gods. Again, it is a question of agency. Piety brings gifts of goodness upon men and Euthyphro claims that it benefits the gods (human piety) even though earlier he had acknowledged that piety is not god-loved. Socrates points out the contradiction but Euthyphro is willing to accept it and stay with it. The dialogue leaves a disappointed Socrates as he must part ways with Euthyphro. Euthyphro is now is late for prosecuting his own father. Socrates must go to his indictment without proper knowledge of piety or impiety.

One recalls the scene at the outset of Nietzsche’s great work Thus Spake Zarathustra wherein Zarathustra encounters a priest, and they pass like old friends, with a similar project in mind for humanity. In the same way, Socrates and Euthyphro are not mortal enemies, they merely differ on the question of reason versus revelation.


For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.