The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
Despite the somewhat dubious story background that glamorizes the Confederacy more than bloody Gone with the Wind — honestly, would we laugh if this comedy centered around Nazis? — Buster Keaton’s signature film is surprisingly ageless and rather thrilling. In fact, although the firmly character-based comedy will catch you off guard and the laughs are plentiful, you’re likely to be much more swayed by the sheer physics of the undertaking, both in Keaton himself (he acts with his entire body like few other performers; even his legs are expressive) and in the often mind-boggling effects work (if you can even call it that since very little, if anything, was faked).
I find Keaton’s persona highly persuasive in its way; although I admire Chaplin as an actor, Keaton is the darker soul to whom I feel more directly responsive, and the difference is visceral and immediate. His stonefaced, almost Franklin Pierce-ish expression, never once cracking, is a surprisingly effective vehicle for self-deprecating and inclusive comedy of exasperation. The charge that it’s all a cover-up of Keaton’s absolute contempt for everyone may have some kind of merit, but it’s hard to associate that with such a pleasing film.
The General, of course, is a Civil War story of an introverted, clumsy guy who can’t get enlisted in the Confederate army no matter how hard he tries because of his position as a railroad man. In his train, he becomes a god of sorts, fully in control and obviously consumed with his work; Keaton puts this across so effectively you find it hard not to believe he was once a conductor. Keaton’s many mishaps in communication doom him — there are very few titles in the film, aiding the illusion of the mute — to a certain outlandish adventure involving a kidnapping of his sweetheart and a quest to save his fellow Southerners from a surprise attack. And he has to catch up with his train, too.
“Outlandish” is putting it mildly. The General is effortlessly grand as a comedy, but its true brilliance comes in its sense of adventure, its wild, frenetic pacing, and its nail-biting suspense, offset by plenty of slapstick laughs. Its structure is brilliantly symmetrical without being easy to predict, and its triumphs are lucid and true. The honesty of Keaton’s performing, the obvious respect toward the working class, and the application of farce without mockery are an asset. But when it comes down to it, what you really remember is that fucking train crash, which is — to this day — one of the most astonishing feats ever caught in a fiction film.
There are many such feats — Keaton refines the notion of filmmaking as manual labor; for once, here’s a director who puts more energy into and takes more physical risks for his film than undoubtedly anyone on his crew — and The General is a truly dazzling movie by any standards, and one that does not bear confinement to its supposed genre or period. I doubt even the most skeptical modern film viewer would really give a shit about the absence of sound in this movie, and I’d be surprised to meet anyone who didn’t laugh quite a few times. It isn’t uproariously funny, certainly not as funny as any of Chaplin’s features, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be amazing, and it is; the seventy years have not dimmed it one bit, and once you’ve seen it, the rubric of “silent comedy” seems more than ever pointless, ridiculous, and entirely inaccurate and unnecessary. It’s teeming with undeniable life.
[With very minor changes, this review was originally posted at another venue in 2007.]