Classic Review: The General (1927)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  An original, funny, and utterly charming classic that paved the way for countless homages and imitations.

An awfully strange poster for an awfully good movie.

An awfully strange poster for an awfully good movie.

Review:  It was the silent era.  Comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and of course Buster Keaton were having their day in the celluloid sun.  Movies were getting bigger, more expensive, and more complicated.  Film was quickly becoming the headline popular entertainment, which has continued to this day.  In 1927, after an extremely dangerous shoot involving numerous stunts, explosives, and battle scenes, Keaton released what he was quite certain was going to be his biggest hit:  A civil war chase movie entitled ‘The General’.  Shockingly, in retrospect, the film received scathing reviews from almost every top critic, who accused it of being boring and a waste of time and talent.  Keaton was very disappointed.  As a result of the severe to mixed reaction, ‘The General’ was a box office failure.

Boy, they were wrong.  Now, ‘The General’ is considered to be not just a great film or a classic in loose terms, but one of the greatest movies ever.  Included in a million top ten lists, including “Best Comedies”, “Best Silent Films”, “Best Chase Movies”, “Best War Movies”, etc., it has proven itself to be not just a non-disappointment but an astounding achievement.  Though something of a film aficionado, I had never taken the time to see the film, despite reacting with familiarity whenever it was mentioned.  Of course, I had to see it sometime.

Here’s why it is good.  First of all, even modern action fans can appreciate the incredible skill of Keaton in his stuntwork, not to mention the great personal risk!  Some of his stunts were pulled off on such odds that a less limber and agile man could have been killed quite easily.  The style and physical comedy he employs would later be imitated and saluted by such modern action greats as Jackie Chan.

The style of the film is mostly satirical and comedic, yes, but includes some great dramatic moments as well.  Adding to the drama is the romantic interest, played by Marion Mack.  Besides being beautiful, she provides the fuel for the story, as well as the some of the funniest moments as she reacts to the hero’s unorthodox approach to problems, while providing her own.

The scenes, due to the fact that they are silent and didn’t have the now-familiar crutch of dialog to support them, rely entirely on physical action.  There is quite a bit.  The inventiveness of the train chases may surprise you.  Also, you’ll have to get used to reading people, and really watching these characters.  If you pay attention to them, you’ll find yourself feeling at home with them.  And, of course, Keaton’s deadpan expressions — endlessly imitated — make him fun to watch.

One possible reason for the critical discomfort with the film, initially, may have been the fact that the protagonists are southerners in the American Civil War.  Though the Union is played off, in general, as the antagonists, you never get the impression that this was attempt to make them really look bad.  It’s more of a human story.  After all, the people in the south were just as American as the people in the north.  Rest assured, slavery is never shown in a favorable light — or any light, really.  Other than some African porters who are seen briefly at a train station scene — a common picture for the era — it is not mentioned.  Obviously, if Keaton had for some reason been trying to retroactively support slavery, he wasn’t doing it overtly enough to be effective.  Hence, it’s pretty clear that was not the filmmakers’ intentions at all, and the setting was just that, a setting.

The film’s copyright has expired, despite being preserved as culturally significant.  You can find copies online, such as at Archive.org, which provides a version without any musical track.  Other versions may be found on YouTube.com or other video sites, some with music tracks.  In any case, if you are a fan of film and movie history, give this one an appreciative look.

Classic Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Violent, epic, touching, and even comical at times, this film is quite the ride.

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

So good, who cares if the poster's not in English?

Review:  Somewhere in the West lies buried an enormous sum in gold, and three men know about it.  Three violent, self-centered men, each of whom would just as soon kill the others if he had the chance.  The only problem is that no one quite knows exactly where this treasure is. Each man knows only a piece of the puzzle, forcing him to work with the others.  Thus begins a rampant odyssey as these men fight both the elements and each other in their search for gold.  Not only that, but the American Civil War is unfolding all around them, and more than once, they get caught in the crossfire.

This is the setting of one of the oddest, yet most well done westerns in existence.  Director Sergio Leone and crew take all the tropes about spaghetti westerns, twist them sideways, and stick them smack-dab in the middle of what should be a much more grandiose film.  So, yes, all those showdowns and shootouts and morally ambiguous characters are here; yes, Clint Eastwood is back as the Man with No Name one last time; and yes, all that crazy music and camera work is here.  It’s all been seen before, right?  Well, sort of, but when you throw large-scale Civil War battles and treasure hunts into the mix, this truly becomes a horse of a different color.

It’s a film that thrives on contrast and hyperbole, a western with a backdrop of war, and that’s what makes it so effective.  In the western, everything is comically exaggerated.  Gunslingers aren’t just good with their weapons, they’re gods literally capable of hitting targets a half-mile away.  Standoff’s aren’t just paced out, they’re dragged out for a full five minutes as tension sky-rockets.  The score isn’t just exciting and energetic, it’s an over-the-top bombastic joy ride, as composer Ennio Morricone mixes howls, yells, and screams along with his usual and diverse array of instruments in this iconic film score.

In the backdrop of the war, however, a near polar opposite is found.  Soldiers are shown realistically wounded, and a true sense of loss is felt as you see multitudes of dieing Union and Confederate men.  Rather than catering to one side or the other, the film shows the good and bad aspects of both factions, making it all the more saddening to see them fight.  Morricone provides his most touching pieces yet for these moments, combining trumpets, violins, and even human moans into truly moving music.

Complementing the story and music is the casting.  Clint Eastwood, in his final spaghetti western, delivers as the fast drawin’ and cigar chomping Man with No Name.  But in this movie, he’s known as The Good.  Lee Van Cleef returns this time as a most sinister and reprehensible killer (The Bad) and, in my opinion, one of the best screen villains of all time.  Newcomer Eli Wallach gives quite the performance as the sometimes-idiotic-sometimes-deadly outlaw, Tuco, (The Ugly).  Interestingly enough, it’s Tuco who steals the show.  He gets the most screen-time, the most lines, and the most back-story; and is arguably the most human of the three.  However, it’s Eastwood who is the most remembered of the three.  Something about the silent toughness that permeates his character wedged its way into the public consciousness, and to this day, he continues to influence the anti-heroes of film and television.

Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More are great spaghetti westerns, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is different.  Sure, it too is a fantastic Italian-made western.  Sure, it’s a great western in general.  But first and foremost, it is an outstanding film.  It transcends any and all classifications or genres and delivers one unique story, the effect, of which, would influence countless pictures to come.  Combining tragedy with action and comedy, it’s the sort of film a man like Quentin Tarantino would have made had he been making films in the sixties.  The film itself, vastly more than its prequels, has become a true classic.  Even people who’ve never seen the film know the name.  In short, it’s the best spaghetti western, it contends for the best western period, and it is without a doubt, one of the most entertaining movies ever made.  Even to people who are not fans of these kinds of movies, I encourage them to give it a watch.  I give this film my highest recommendation.