The General, 1926
Dir: Buster Keaton
August 12, 2009
I really wanted to know what the big deal was about this film, having seen a lot of silent comedies but never getting around to this one for some reason. So after watching it, all I can say, is that it is definitely worth the fuss. Rejected by the Confederate army as unfit and taken for a coward by his beloved Annabelle Lee (Marian Mack), young Johnnie Gray (Keaton) sets out to single-handedly win the war with the help of his cherished locomotive. What follows is, without exaggeration, probably the most cleverly choreographed comedy ever recorded on celluloid. Johnnie wages war against hijackers, an errant cannon, and the unpredictable hand of fate while roaring along the iron rails.
One of the most amazing things in the film occurs when Buster sits on one of the side rods of the train, which connect the drivers of the locomotive (thanks wikipedia!). The train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed. The visual effect of the forlorn Buster as the motion of the side rod moves him gently up and down is very poignant, and also one of the greatest things I have ever seen captured on film. My jaw rarely drops when I watch a film, but this was just crazy. Had they done anything wrong, he probably would have died. Another amazing thing he shot was the bridge collapse near the end, with an actual locomotive moving across it. Apparently he did not tell the actor playing a Union general that this was going to happen, and the look of terror and shock on his face is truly genuine. That's fucking genius.
The plot is a little standard, but it can be overlooked for the great score and hilarious physical comedy, and seriously, it is visually stunning at some points. Keaton seems to me the superb craftsman of silent comedy. Chaplin may have been the more nakedly emotional genius, but Keaton was more interested in the medium of film itself, as you can tell by the way this film is shot, which is way more interesting than anything Chaplin ever did. Insisting on accuracy in every detail, Keaton created a remarkably authentic historical epic, replete with hundreds of costumed extras and full-scale sets. I just read that he studied all of those famous Matthew Brady Civil War photographs before he shot this and his visual aesthetic was based on that. You can really tell that too, because no one else shot war scenes at this point like Keaton.
Pushing the limits of his body and the limits of stunts of the time, Keaton creates a sublimely funny and at times frankly astounding tour-de-force of physical comedy and slapstick sequences. Everything that is done in the film is done on the day, without the help of elaborate camera tricks, and the sheer audacity of Keaton's drive to find the funniest set piece is breathtaking to behold. Possibly the classic silent comedy.