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.

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