Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman | 77 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English) | U
Poorly reviewed and a box office flop on its release, Buster Keaton’s The General has undergone a stark re-evaluation since: the United States National Film Registry deemed it so “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” that it was added to the registry in its first year, alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars; these days, it rates on both public-voted popular lists (the IMDb Top 250 at #133) and critics’ polls (34th on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll). Does it live up to such a reputation?
Set at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Keaton plays a Southern train engineer who is refused permission to sign up for the army. When agents of the North hijack a train, he sets out to prove himself by giving chase. Hilarity ensues.
Believe it or not, The General is based on a real incident from the war… which was considerably grimmer than the farce presented here. Like the film, however, the South did win… except in real life the South were the bad guys (right?), so that’s no good. Anyway, such things shouldn’t trouble us here — this is a comedy, not a history lesson. That said, I must confess I didn’t laugh all that much — although some of it is quite funny — but, in spite of that, I rather loved it. Whatever the intention, it worked for me as a kind of comedic action-adventure (a genre we more often associate with more modern eras, I’d wager), rather than as an out-and-out comedy. Some of it is quite genuinely tense rather than purely amusing.
It was reportedly a very expensive film, and it looks it: there are tonnes of extras, not to mention elaborate choreography… of trains! Who knew old steam trains were so agile? There’s impressive physicality on display from Keaton, but the well-timed movements of those big old locomotives are quite extraordinary, especially for the era (I mean, for the past couple of decades you’ve been able to do pretty much anything thanks to a spot of computer-controlled what-have-you. Not much of that going on in the 1920s.)
Sometimes watching Classic Movies is almost a chore of noteworthiness or “good for its time” import; other times, they still offer pure enjoyment, however many decades later. I’m not sure a silent comedy is ever going to curry favour with all modern viewers, but The General is one that still has the power to transcend the (perceived) limitations of its era.