1927Director: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Charles Henry Smith
he story of Johnnie Gray, a man with two loves in his life: his engine and his girl. His affection for the intimate workings of one denies him the heart of the other. Inspired by the politics of romance, rather than that of the North/South divide, Johnnie tries to enlist with the Confederates in order to impress the demanding Annabelle Lee. However, he is cruelly rejected, considered to be more useful as a railway engineer than a make-weight soldier. How right they were.
The glorious physical grace and deadpan wit of Buster Keaton are in perfect harmony in this film, his masterpiece. Rather like Orson Welles, his greatest work slowly destroyed him. The General, like Citizen Kane, was a commercial flop and critical oddity. Despite the early praise for the film–Bert G. Bates, in the Orgegonian (15 November 1926) proclaimed that The General had “laughs galore and will set a mark for Chaplin”—but word of mouth became whispers of death as it grossed less than half of its production costs. Perhaps, as with Welles, his extreme genius took an unsuspecting movie world too far, too soon. Both filmmakers lost the trust of the studios—no doubt suspicious of something they didn’t quite comprehend—and were forever playing catch-up with themselves.
The sheer bravura and sweeping force with which the film is told is breathtaking: the physical stunts, the fluid tracking shots, the undeniable and improbable whimsy, the exquisite clarity of the humour. Clyde Bruckman, the co-writer of the film, once said, “Keaton could tell his story by lifting an eyebrow. He could tell his story by not lifting an eyebrow.” That’s the level of precision at which this film operates. Keaton is in supreme control of his body, the engine, the film. He strikes a mesmerising balance between comedy and tragedy, no better example being the axe handle he throws into the engine’s furnace to keep the train going (in spite of the wood he has left to chop). This surreal aspect of Keaton keeps him fresh, always unusual, ever surprising.
Keaton is rightly lauded for his physical comedy. His visual expression, on the other hand, is sometimes overlooked. The General is a beautifully composed and innovative film, as cinematic as any Renoir or von Stroheim and, at times, completely stunning. The POV shot through the hole in the tablecloth is a fleeting moment of beauty at the heart of a tense, dangerous set-up. And let’s not forget that a large part of this film was shot on a fast-moving steam train, where time is still found for groundbreaking stunts, political comment, and sweet romantic reunion.
Keaton was adamant that the film be played straight. To some extent, he held true to this ideal. Although wildly funny, Johnnie Gray is no buffoon. He is a man with weak intentions swept up by circumstance. He slowly finds his true, heroic character and that his courage is romantic, not patriotic. He is as representative a human being as silent cinema managed to produce, with exception, perhaps, to the brutish McTeague and Chaplin’s tramp. Often placed in pointless critical combat with Chaplin, The General has much in common with the realistic milieu of The Immigrant and Easy Street. Like Chaplin’s films, The General manages a charming and arresting blend of innocent humour and serious sentiment.
As opposed to the knockabout destructive quality of Steamboat Bill, Jr., released two years later, The General displays a remarkable economy of character and action. Movement and expression is not wanton as in that film, but purposeful. This is storytelling—the very definition of the great American narrative in action. And Keaton is a very American genius, embracing the “modern classical” like Frank Norris, Stephen Crane and William Kennedy.
The General is one of the best films ever made, but most importantly, it’s funny. If it had disappointed in that respect, it would have been a complete failure. Keaton’s talent was amazing, his dreams, even more so. If there’s one film to watch to make you believe that human beings are capable of magic, brilliance, and wonder, this is it.