By Casey Campbell
Told with heart and humor, Buster Keaton’s The General is an absolute delight, while being technically exquisite. And boy, does it hold up. Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman blended zany comedy with suspenseful action to deliver a truly unique viewing experience for someone who is just now getting around to watching the works of the early silent days of filmmaking.
Set in the South during the American Civil War, Johnnie Gray is a train conductor who’s in love with a girl. The girls family enlists in the war efforts, and Johnnie is incentivized to do the same, but get’s denied. She leaves him, thinking Gray didn’t even attempt to sign up, and he goes back to being a conductor. A year later, his favorite train, the General, is stolen by Union officers, and he takes it upon himself to regain his train, and his lost love in the process.
The silent era is known for it’s physical comedy, and for good reason: The General holds up so well because it doesn’t rely on gags from the time, but rather on physical slapstick and clever choreography. But, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a straightforward comedy. It was tense and surprising as much as it was funny. I was holding my breath when a train was backing up and gaining speed toward another train that was accelerating on the same track, only to change tracks at the last second.
I had heard of Keaton’s work thanks to his comedic efforts, but I was truly floored by his acting chops. He sold the role in leaps and bounds, playing a brave yet goofy conductor. His ability to blend action with comedy so seamlessly was not only entertaining, but incredibly impressive. Timing and choreography play a key factor in what makes his talents work, as he performs ridiculous feats in uncut and oftentimes lengthy sequences.
His direction was, in a word, innovative. The camera was regularly in motion, though never in excess. Several of the sequences followed a train barreling down a track while the camera follows at the same pace, sometimes managing to speed up to the head to see what the characters are doing. For 1926, this was truly a feat. And it almost certainly inspired Wes Anderson’s slick and steady camera style.
It’s strange to watch a film that basically heroizes the Confederate South, especially now in 2017, in the midst of the recent political movements to remove Confederate statues in the South. It’s decidedly odd that Keaton decided to make the Confederacy the brave heroes of the film. 1926 was only 60 years out from when the Civil War concluded, meaning many of the younger soldiers from both the north and south would have been alive during it’s release. The film loses appeal when understanding how it regards the Confederacy, who for all intents and purposes were traitors to America, and should not be viewed with integrity nor grace. I couldn’t help but think of how these pro-slavery soldiers were being viewed as heroic and fighting for a good cause.
In terms of filmmaking, The General is a trailblazing triumph of nuanced acting, clever action, and phenomenal photography. It’s story is simple, but the character and action make this a fantastic success. Much like The Birth of a Nation (1915), but not nearly as heinous in it’s depiction of race relations, The General is a product of it’s time, and that’s unfortunate. Though socially unacceptable, the filmmaking makes up for the unsavory depictions of a pro-slave army with technical proficiency and innovation.
Watch The General for free below, thanks to public domain: