If You Lose The War, Don't Blame Me: The General (1926)

I have long adored Buster Keaton as being both a brilliant filmmaker and a master of the slapstick comedy genre.  In many ways one can tie Keaton to all the best elements of the silent era, whether they be the great narratives, captivating visuals or senses for a cinematic landscape that is capable of intense specifics and grand generalities.  The General is certainly Keaton's most well-regarded film, one that often gets placed as number one in his oeuvre as well as being in top hundred lists on a near regular basis, in fact, if I am not mistaken it has also managed to find its way onto the most recent incarnation of the Sight and Sound poll.  While I will probably always be partial to Sherlock Jr., I certainly found myself completely captivated by the world of The General and even became aware of myself laughing out loud at many moments in the film, something that seems to be a rare occurrence when I engage with movies these days, let alone a silent era film at that.  Perhaps it is the universality of the narrative, or the genuine zeal of the stunts and comedy in The General, but damn if it is not a well-perfected bit of film, that leads me to suggest that it is no far extension to mention the late Keaton in the same breath as other major cinematic figures, whether they be Welles, Kurosawa or Renoir.  I know that Chaplin would prove more successful and that Harold Lloyd would commit to a higher degree of insanity, but one of my many adorations towards Keaton is his seeming ability to effortlessly weave both the serious elements of his film, in this case, the trials of war, with complete absurdity, thus allowing viewers to, unknowingly, become fully aware of the more serious and to some degree illogical elements of war.  Of course, it is not necessarily the ideal commentary one would hope for considering the clear positive and negative sides of the war, however, it is a film from the twenties, and is certainly far more critical of The South than say, The Birth of a Nation, furthermore, it is not unlikely that Keaton stages his protagonist on the side of the Confederacy as a means to layer on the irony.  If all of this manages, however, to not be a selling point it is worth remembering that this film possesses the single most expensive scene in all of the silent era pictures, and is well worth it as far as the history of cinema should be concerned.

The General focuses on the attempts of railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) to become a soldier with the Confederacy, almost entirely to assure the well being of his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and the upkeep of his locomotive The General, for where the film obviously draws its title.  Upon discovering that Gray is a engineer the South rejects his desires to enlist and say that he should stay at home, however, the officers fail to explain their decision to Gray who assumes it is a negative choice, leading to his repeated attempts to join the Confederacy, particularly after he is egged on by his fiancee's brother and father.  Annabelle not realizing precisely why Gray is not enlisted, threatens to leave him unless he shows up in the clothing of the Confederacy.  Time passes and during an unusual event, Annabelle becomes a prisoner to escaping soldiers, leading to Gray chasing them down on a pushcart, which leads to the mid-section of the film which is a glorious and lengthy set of chases and re-chases between Gray and the soldiers in blue, often taking turns throwing things into one another's paths to slow down their already specified mobility.  During a night when Gray sneaks into the enemy camp he discovers their plans, which revolve heavily around a specific bridged trade route and after taking the lead in his locomotive, he is able to draw the Union soldiers towards the bridge, which he has started on fire, causing the passing trains to pass over the bridge, only to have it cave in while riding over it, leading to the destruction of the trade route in the process.   This is followed by a thorough trouncing of the soldiers on the part of the South, a barrage which directly involves Gray, at one point he becomes the bearer of the Confederate flag.  In the end, however, Gray obtains the thing he truly desires, via reuniting with his fiancee who has forgiven him and understands his situation, the two are shown kissing, while Gray half-heartedly salutes the passing soldiers, considering that his efforts on the train led to several degrees of promotion in one fell swoop.

The General is a lot of different things, whether it be a early reflection on the filmic possibilities concerning an anti-war statement, a fear of modernization blocking from human interaction, even in a negative sense, or perhaps most obviously it is a romance.  One with these suggestions can create arguments as to their validity and relevance to the respective film, however, there is an undeniable and outspoken consensus that this is easily one of the greatest comedic films of all-time, in not the to few concerning America specifically.  The question then arises as to what precisely makes The General such a stand out comedy, often placed higher on lists than any other Keaton film, and in many instances well above the first mention of Chaplin.  I would suggest that a ton of the support and eventual critical success of the film is its purposeful commitment to some of the more traditional tropes of Westernized culture, although completely reverting and reappropriating them to fit the desired situation.  It is no small feat to move a large train forwards and backwards, let alone choreographing one's movements through that area as well, much like Lloyd and Chaplin the shear athleticism is baffling and to center it within a comedic context is something entirely its own brilliance.  Keaton would often forces his way through scenes to make the moment work, diving, twisting and dodging accordingly all in the name getting the ideal shot or sequence.  Where the slapstick elements not enough, however, it manages to be further brilliant by the genuine comedy of the plot and the passing of being a soldier for either side, by simply switching coats, a mockery of Benedict Arnold, while also earnestly considering what it means to identify with one side during a war.  Perhaps the real humor in the film, however, comes at its most scathing moment, wherein Gray ignores all the killing he has done now that he has repossessed the affections of his fiancee, suggesting he would literally kill to win her back.  As noted before, it is seemingly simple, however, it has layers of irony and criticism when one pauses to truly place the situation against the backdrop of the war occurring simultaneously.

Key Scene:  The match cut of Keaton dropping stuff of the train while the following train and soldiers continually pick the stuff of the tracks is filmmaking 101, but few have used the match cut as well since...oh yeah there is also this really cool train crash sequence.

Buy this movie, it is a backbone for any collection.  I certainly plan on upgrading to blu in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. It makes me want to reconsider the film.