The General (1926) February 12th, 2023
Making a record of the films I consumed during the pandemic lockdowns was this blog’s original purpose. Simulating talking to my friends and family about movies during a time when we weren’t supposed to gather in groups or go to the movies (unless you bought out the whole theater which I DID at least once) was supposed to help combat the isolation. It also began with a list of movies stretching to the earliest parts of the last century. It’s been too long since I reviewed a silent era film from The List and I can’t imagine better choice to get me back on track than Buster Keaton’s The General.
Producing films in the silent era must’ve been very difficult. Aside from the self identified lack of audio, the cameras of the time were huge and their weight made transportation difficult. Even if you did move them around a set or location they still have to be operated by a hand crank. Then there’s the film, if you managed to get enough stock on hand for the day you still had to worry about the silver nitrate literally exploding in your face. I think you can see filmmakers of the era combating the effects of these constraints in silent films with stationary cameras and limited locations. Buster Keaton must’ve been a chore to work with because his films don’t seem inhibited at all.
The General is an epic masterpiece like I’ve never seen. Keaton’s character can’t join the Confederate army because his skillset as a train engineer makes him too valuable to throw in with the rest of the frontline fodder. If your priority is self preservation that seems like a win, right? Wrong, when word gets back to his girlfriend that he’s not enlisted she’s mortified. She vows to not speak to him again until he enlists. Stuck between a rock and a hard place Keaton does whatever he can to get into a southern uniform, even if he has to steal it.
The majority of The General is shot on or around huge locomotives. Keaton puts his camera on, in, and around these trains in as many ways as he can to pull off incredibly impressive cinematic shots. There’s far too many awesome shots to list but the coup de gras has got to be the famous bridge collapse. Often billed as ‘the most expensive silent film shot’ it features a Union train collapsing as it attempts to cross a burning bridge that collapses under the train’s weight. This shot was done practically and with a real train and a real bridge over a real river, no miniatures. Every action shot in The General is that cool. Trains switching tracks, cameras fixed on one train that use another adjacent track to capture dolly shots of the principal train, cannons firing from one locomotive to another. It’s madcap brilliance.
The General is nearly 100 years old as of this writing and the preference for digital effects have put the majority of practical craftsmen out to pasture. CGI’s stale ubiquity somehow conditioned me to a point where the special effects in a century old comedy feel like a breath of fresh air. The General isn’t quaint, it’s not charming, it’s just fucking rad. Bring back squibs, bring back shooting on location, and bring back practical creature effects, bring back an actual spectacle and you might just bring back audiences to the theater.
On top of being a breathtaking special effects epic, The General is also a hilarious comedy. Keaton’s ability to use the film medium comedically, keeping in mind the relative nascency of the art artform, is nothing short of masterful. I’ve got to imagine The General is ranked highly among Buster Keaton’s legendary body of work but if any of his other works are funnier or more epic than The General then you better start naming names buster because I want to see ’em!
Is it more celebratory of The General or condemnation of modern comedy that I was shocked to find myself laughing out loud at a century old train movie but can’t recall the last time I saw a straightforward comedy in theaters? I don’t have the answer, but I do know if you’re interested in watching The General you’ve got to watch the restored version in HD without the weird old school color effect. One of the main reasons we watched The General came from a visit to my Dad last year. He was digitizing VHS tapes, one of which was a copy of The General he’d recorded off TV or something 30 years ago. It looked terrible, grainy, hard to appreciate anything but the vaguest shapes of slapstick comedy. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how most people expect to see silent films but that’s just it, they’re all shot on film, so if they’re skillfully restored you can end up with stunning image clarity that makes the movie look like it was shot yesterday. Apart from the anachronistic clothes and lack of sound.
Great review. I love The General, too. My problem is the choice of the Confederacy as heroic. I know you’re supposed to be contextual about when films were made, but this still bugs me. The General comes across as Dixie Propaganda. Believe me, I WANT to root for Buster. I LOVE Buster. But I HATE revisionist history. You are absolutely on target with this film as a work of cinematic art. No argument. I need help divorcing my 21st Century mindset from what I see on the screen. Help me!
Still – great review!