The General – 1927
Director – Buster Keaton, and Clyde Bruckman
Starring – Buster Keaton, and Marion Mack
Buster Keaton stars as a railroad man in the south during the Civil War, who has two loves in his life…his girl (played by Marion Mack, and his train engine (named The General, it’s the movies namesake). When fighting breaks out in his state, he is compelled through the suggestion of his lady love to join the army, and go into battle. Due to his importance as an engineer for the railroad, Keaton is turned down for active duty. Because of this, his girlfriend and her family think he is a coward. When spys from the north steal his beloved General, he has an opportunity to prove his courage.
Based on what I know about physics and the danger associated with trains, Buster Keaton is crazy to attempt the stunts, gags and gimmics that he does in this film. Not only does he repeatedly put his own life on the line, but he has a sort of deadpan humor that he demonstrates the whole time as well. This ensures that if your jaw isn’t on the ground, it is busy laughing throughout. Keaton runs from one end of the full train to the other, changing tracks, un-hooking cars, feeding the furnace, and clearing the track ahead of obstacles while he does it.
I have tried to read up a little bit on this movie, but haven’t managed to find all that much about it. I have to imagine that, just like Jackie Chan does today, Buster Keaton probably had some accidents, or at the very least some spectacular outtakes from some of his shots.
The story and motivation is pretty much secondary to the visuals and the action, but that doesn’t hurt this movie at all. The pace slows down a little in the middle of the film, when he leaves the train set and goes to a house, but it picks up again when they get back to it. The war scene at the end doesn’t seem to have the gravity or punch of the previous hour or so, but that too can be forgiven due to the fantastic action on display.
Each time I’ve tried to watch a silent film, regardless of whether I chose to watch it or if it was assigned to me for a class, I’ve had trouble keeping awake. The lack of sound, combined with the rather long takes and over-emotive acting seem to repel my attention. Despite the ridiculous, continuous piano music or lack of dialogue, my attention was kept the entire time I was watching this film (the scene that was the most difficult was the aforementioned scene away from the train).
Scenes to watch out for…Keaton steals a train engine to chase a group of Northern soldiers who have stolen his train engine, and he has to constantly run up to the very front of the train to clear a series of obstacles that the soldiers leave on the tracks…and the northern soldiers are trying to catch up with Keaton who has set a bridge on fire as a trap for them.
Check it out, it is totally worth the watch.