A couple of weekends ago now, we watched our very first Buster Keaton movie. I think that we can safely say that the AFI project has truly expanded our horizons: I would credit our enjoyment of contemporaneous works (I suppose I mean Charlie Chaplin) with raising interest and awareness of similar films. Much like Chaplin, Keaton dealt mainly in silent film and physical comedy. Apart from that, I’d say the two are markedly different: Chaplin was, I think, more of an actor, and Keaton, at least from the one film I’ve seen, is less emotive and more physical in conveying sentiment. I will absolutely have to watch more of Keaton’s work before I get carried away with making comparisons, though. I think The General was a fabulous place to start.
At the start of the American Civil War, Johnny Gray (Keaton) is a railroad engineer. He has, we are told, two loves in his life: the lovely Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his engine, The General. The former declares that she will never speak to him again after he fails to enlist in the Confederate Army, but when both The General and Annabelle are made off with by Union spies, Johnny engages in a daring solo mission across enemy lines to rescue them, and to aid the Southern cause by warning them of the North’s plans.
The General is largely considered to be one of Keaton’s greatest films, and it’s not hard to see why. Although it’s a little slow to get started, once the main plot kicks in, the movie is a riveting piece of film-making. Keaton is an amazing physical presence, and his every move belies intense preparation, precision, and ability. The action sequences that make up about 80% of the movie mirror that dedication and imagination, and could probably only be imitated today with the use of CGI. Keaton relies less on slapstick humor than Chaplin does, preferring to use his physicality in more athletic ways, which makes the comedy of The General more sophisticated than much of Chaplin’s work, but no less funny. Please note that I am not suggesting Chaplin wasn’t sophisticated: I think Modern Times is some of the most amazing satire ever. There’s just something a little smoother about Keaton’s work: his Johnny is still a bumbler, but he errs in more interesting ways. Again, it’s his precision that impresses. The character is also well-suited to Keaton’s trademark “straight-man” qualities: he’s dogged in his determination to rescue his beloved engine; anything else that comes his way is secondary to his primary goal He’s momentarily bewildered but soon reaches a solution to the problem at hand, and moves on. Any time a performer can carry a large portion of a movie completely alone and still maintain interest, you know you’re dealing with something special, and that is definitely the case here.
It was entertaining to watch an early comedy about the Civil War, having seen D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation not too long ago. I would definitely say that The General is a superior movie, and not just due to Griffith’s obvious biases. The General focuses more on the aspects of the war itself rather than the social and political reasons for that war, and it finds a way to make light of it. This was a really great watch that I would recommend to anyone looking to broaden their horizons a little bit. If, like me, you get a lot out of watching someone be really good at what they’re doing, I think Mr. Keaton is the man for you. Overall, The General is a marvel of construction as well as laugh-out-loud funny.