Arguably the greatest of Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, The General begins with a single, brilliantly sustained premise and works it into an engaging story that combines edge-of-your-seat excitement, stunningly conceived stunts and sight gags, spectacular set pieces, touching sentiment, and a rousing finale.
Essentially a chase film, The General tells the Civil War-era tale of stoic young Confederate railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton), whose precious train is stolen — and beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack) kidnapped — by Union spies. Commandeering another train to give chase, Gray winds up sallying deep into enemy territory, riding by the seat of his pants as he confronts obstacles and difficulties at every turn, often with only moments to act and split-second timing needed to avoid disaster.
Ironically, though often named one of the best films of the silent era as well as Keaton’s personal best film, The General is not Keaton’s most characteristic film, and was a critical and box-office flop in its own day. A typical Keaton vehicle spends the first two acts with story gags and plot complications, then goes for broke in the last act with a crescendo of amazing stunts and set pieces. Sometimes, as in Steamboat Bill, Jr., plot points are simply throw to the winds in the last act. (Compare Douglas Fairbanks’s final-reel acrobats in The Mark of Zorro, which blows away the rest of the film.)
By contrast, The General is story-driven and more disciplined in tone and style. Keaton’s acrobatics are likewise at the service of the story rather than being showcased by it. The stunts aren’t Keaton’s showiest, but the physics and geometry of Johnnie Gray’s ordeal, involving cannons, fires, fence rails, water towers, and various obstacles on the tracks from railroad ties to free-rolling train cars, are as elegant and precise as anything in Keaton’s oeuvre.
Watching Keaton in action, one can easily believe he was one of Jackie Chan’s main inspirations. Yet in his deadpan understatement Keaton was perhaps unique among physical comedians. Perhaps misleadingly nicknamed “the Great Stone Face,” Keaton was in fact a subtle actor, but didn’t go for broad emotion or histrionics. Instead, his characters keep their emotions on a short leash, making them all the more sympathetic.
Part of The General’s strength is its historical persuasiveness; the look of the film was meant to evoke Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, and though a comedy The General has an authentic period feel unmatched by dramatic Civil War films.
Buster Keaton’s first feature-length comedy is one of his best, a comic gem set against a backdrop of a Hatfield-McCoy style family feud. Raised far from the scene of generations of “McKay-Canfield” violence, young Willie McKay (Keaton) knows nothing about the bad blood between the two families — until the time comes for him to go home and claim his inheritance.
Buster Keaton’s most popular vehicle in his own day, and said to be Keaton’s favorite of his own films, The Navigator isn’t as sophisticated and satisfying as his best work (e.g., The General), but it’s still brilliant slapstick comedy, with a rousing third act and a slam-bang climax.
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Thank you so much for the “Zorro” recommendation. My family loves them, and my kids want to share them with everyone. If they were a little more historically accurate I would push to show them in my kids California History classes.
Also, we are grateful for your recommendation of The General but how do you handle the ambiguity of rooting for the wrong side in this movie? Clearly, the South is protrayed as the good guys, and the North the bad side.
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