In my experience of talking to film reviewers, there seems a general consensus that terrible works are far and away the easiest to review, followed by great films, and that the hardest ones to write about are the mediocre ones – basically there’s nothing to really say about them. Personally I find the most difficult films to review by a country mile are the bona fide classics. Buster Keaten and Clyde Bruckman’s 1926 action comedy The General is a case in point: it’s essentially a silent cinema masterpiece, and all but required viewing for anyone with an interest in comedy, film, film comedy, history, film history, or historical comedy film.
At the time the film was not appreciated as much as Keaton’s other feature work. Despite being released towards the end of his most creative period – the 1920s – it was seen as not as funny as earlier works, with a peculiar attempt to blend comedy with dramatic action combined with an ill-advised Civil War setting in which Keaton’s character fights for the South.
To be honest, the Civil War elements do feel troublesome. The narrative does not engage in the conflict in any meaningful way, of course, and slavery does not get a look-in. The two sides are simply that: two sides, with no real justification for the conflict in either direction. There is an argument to be made that Keaton satirizes the silliness of war in general, if one was so inclined, but in all honesty nothing here feels engaged enough in the subject matter to suggest Keaton is making any comment. Such a charitable reading also ignores the extensive and significant “lost cause” narrative that was being popularised in America’s southern states at the time. At the time of The General‘s release, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was only a decade old, and people in the South were still erecting monuments to the KKK. If Keaton was attempting to ignore the politics of the war, then he clearly did not understand that choosing not to take sides is in itself a political choice.
In The General, patriotic Georgian Johnnie Gray (Keaton) seeks to win the heart of Annabelle (Marion Mack). When civil war breaks out, and he is rejected from signing up to fight, Annabelle coldly spurns his advances. A year later, when Gray stumbles on Union spies plotting to steal a freight train, he is thrust into a desperate chase to recover the locomotive, warn the Confederate army, and save the day.
The General is, its odd politics aside, an absolute master work of silent cinema. It is a film that – and I’m aware of how close I am skirting to the hoary old cliche of ‘ahead of its time’ – failed to elicit the appropriate appreciation of audiences at the time. What seemed like a less funny iteration of Keaton’s earlier comedies is actually a startling and fresh combination of genres; proof that one could be funny and serious in the same movie. There are plenty of physical stunts and pratfalls that reflect Keaton’s exceptional brand of physical clowning, but there are also remarkably bleak and violent jokes woven in too: one sequence comes later in the film where the hapless Johnnie Gray commands a cannon team, unaware that a sniper is killing them off one after the other and simply getting more and more confused that they all keep falling down dead.
The film also employs genuinely suspenseful action sequences in between the comedy bits. Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman based the story on a real-life railway heist during the war, and the film makes it clear throughout that hundreds – if not thousands – of lives are at stake. The General tells an honest-to-goodness story here, with a familiar three-act structure that allows it extend to more than 100 minutes in length. It is a long way beyond Keaton’s early and popular two-reel comedy shorts. Later Keaton films would stretch even longer.
To praise Keaton’s performance is obviously redundant: his comic timing, physical presence, and trademark dead-pan reactions are in full evidence. A special mention must be made of Marion Mack as the Southern belle Annabelle, whose participation in the story grows from inassailable affection object to active co-conspirator in the race to warn the Confederates. Her own acting, particularly her comedy stunts and pratfalls, hold up enormously against Keaton’s. Had The General been a larger hit at the time, her career may have gone further. As it was she only performed for about eight years before switching to a career in screenwriting.
The General is an exceptional work. Its jokes and gags hold up today, almost a century after audiences first saw them. Same of the darker elements arguably work better now than they did then. Its politics are curious and slightly disturbing, but if one can put them aside – and you are absolutely not wrong if you cannot – there is comedy gold here. Buster Keaton remains a Hollywood legend for a reason.