The General (1926)
D: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton / 75m
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes
A lot of my earliest movie memories are of watching silent comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. When I was growing up, their movies were a major part of the programming during the mornings on the UK’s BBC 2 channel, along with the Flash Gordon serials, Tarzan movies, and later, Charlie Chan features. Silent short films were often included in the schedules as filler, but for me they were more welcome than most of the feature length, talking pictures that were shown. The Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller seemed interchangeable after a while, and when Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare entered the fray, their small-town dramatics quickly felt repetitive. No, it was Chaplin et al. who were my preferred choice, and I did my best to make sure I didn’t miss any that were shown (this was before the advent of video).
At first, it was the antics of Laurel and Hardy that I liked most. Then, I saw a short called The Haunted House (1921), followed (a few days later) by One Week (1920). Now I was asking myself, Who is this Buster Keaton? (And why don’t the BBC show more of his movies?) I kept checking the schedules for any more Keaton movies, eventually seeing only a half dozen or so more. It was frustrating, especially as I now knew he’d made feature length movies as well; where were they when a budding cineaste needed them?
Here my memory becomes a little less reliable. I know that College (1927) was the first of his features that I saw, but when The General came along, that moment is lost in the mists of early onset Alzheimers. But it was a pivotal moment, because like the true aficionado of silent film that I believed I was – I wasn’t Kevin Brownlow, but as a self-taught teenager, I didn’t think I was doing too badly – when I saw The General I knew I was watching Keaton’s masterpiece, the movie he will always be remembered for above all his other movies.
What I liked straight away was the level of detail, the lengths that Keaton and his co-director, the (for me) much underrated Clyde Bruckman had gone to in order to recreate the American Civil War, and to re-enact a famous event from that period. So often comedy exists in its own little “bubble”, a place where a joke or a gag can have the most effect. But here, Keaton uses the War as the grounding for all the jokes to come, all the visual gags and physical stunts, so that when you’re watching them they don’t seem as far-fetched as they would do if they were presented purely by themselves. For me, there will never be a greater physical stunt/gag than when he sits on the train’s cowcatcher and flips railroad ties out of the way of the approaching General; knowing this was done for real with no camera trickery involved just makes it all the more impressive (and frightening if it had gone wrong).
There’s a subtlety to The General, as well, a sense that Keaton was aiming higher by making the comic elements arise organically from the overall mise-en-scène, along with the romantic and action elements. Having taken an event from the War that a lot of people would either still remember or be well aware of, he takes what was, ultimately, a tragic tale, and elevates it. In the process he provides us with an uplifting, surprisingly emotional experience that makes us laugh and urge him on, and it’s all done with a seeming effortlessness that we know can’t have been the case. And I don’t think Keaton’s stoic features have ever been used to better effect than here. He’s often accused of being expressionless, but in The General you’re never in any doubt as to how he’s feeling, or what he’s thinking. Again, it’s the subtlety that makes this so fascinating to watch.
A few years ago, I took a friend to see The General at London’s National Film Theatre. It was having what they like to call an Extended Run, playing several times a day for around six weeks. My friend has a passion for movies but he’s very much a “modern day” moviegoer; he likes the sturm und drang of today’s multiplex fare. With this in mind I thought it would be a great idea to take him to see The General. He had some reservations, not least because it was a silent movie, but because it was so far out of his comfort zone (even the fact that it was “only” seventy-five minutes long didn’t entirely persuade him he would be fine). And while we waited for the movie to start he was visibly nervous (I wish I’d been able to video this). When the movie ended, he turned to me and said, “That was incredible. I can’t believe how incredible that was.” Vindicated, and feeling on top of the world for seeing the movie for the first time on the big screen, I couldn’t help but feel that here was the true strength of Keaton’s masterpiece: that it can captivate and envelop anyone who comes to it.
Rating: 9/10 – not just a comedy, The General works on so many levels it’s almost embarrassing; one of the finest silent movies ever made, and as breathtaking today for its perfection as it was back in 1926.