Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The General

If you ask anyone who has heard of Buster Keaton to name one of his films then chances are they’ll say The General. By far his most famous film, Keaton stars as railroad engineer Johnnie Gray on the eve of the American Civil War. Johnnie has two loves in his life; his girl Annabelle (Marion Mack) and his engine, The General. When war is declared Johnnie rushes off to enlist in the Confederate Army only to be turned away as he is too important on the railroad. Annabelle doesn’t believe him though and says she doesn’t want to see him until he’s in uniform. Meanwhile a Northern spy plots to steal a Southern train in order to cut communications before a big offensive. With Annabelle onboard, Johnnie has to save his two loves at once.

It is true that The General is Keaton’s most famous work and is generally considered to be his best. For me though this is not the case. While I admire much of it and enjoyed it, the film is more of a drama-comedy than his earlier comedy-dramas and it is these that I prefer.

Despite being a great lover of silent comedy and counting Buster Keaton amongst my screen heroes, today is the first time I’ve actually seen The General all the way through. I first tried to watch it about five years ago, before I was really in to silent cinema and fell asleep half way through. A couple of years later I saw the ending but today I saw it in one sitting. There is an awful lot to like about it and it’s not surprising that it’s admired as much as it is. One of the most incredible aspects of the film are the stunts performed by Keaton himself. Renowned for his dangerous stunt work, Keaton here completes such feats as jumping from engine to boxcar, moving across coupling rods and sitting aboard the cow catcher (something that is reminiscent of his 1921 film The Goat). All of these stunts were performed while the train was moving at speed.

The scale of the film is also something to be impressed by. Cinema is famous for its car chases but here Keaton and co Director Clyde Bruckman create an extended chase sequence featuring three steam locomotives. Keaton is chased in The General by two Union trains and comes up with clever ways to keep them at bay such as throwing boxes off the back of his train and dismantling points. The chase climaxes in one of Keaton’s most enduring images; a train falling off a burning bridge into a river. This was all done for real, on location, using an actual locomotive and the half submerged train became a mirror tourist attraction, in situ, before being removed for scrap metal during the Second World War.

My main problem with The General is that is isn’t funny enough. While the plot, acting and scale are all impressive, I watch a Buster Keaton film to laugh and during the 75 minute run time I only laughed out loud about five or six times. This might sound good compared to the sort of tripe which Adam Sandler and Jennifer Anniston produce these days but for a Buster Keaton feature I’d expect more. There are still funny moments in there, one of which being the cannon pointing at Keaton scene. There are lots of subtle jokes and looks too which you’d miss if you didn’t pay close attention. Unlike Keaton’s earlier shorts though laughs seem to come second to story and while this isn’t a bad thing, I felt that they came a distant second rather than close second.


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