At the turn of the 21st century, I was a budding cinephile that had only just begun to scratch the surface of the art form. I had been obsessed with movies for as far back as I could remember, but was just reaching the level of thinking I was discovering something masterful and life changing in films from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Richard Linklater. At the age of 13, my uncle (always encouraging my dive into film) gave me a birthday present that served as a kick to the gut of what I knew so little about and what I strive to know ever more to this day. This present consisted of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Buster Keaton's The General. Not only were these the first two silent films I had witnessed, but they were also more ambitious and effective as cinematic achievements than anything I'd gotten my hands on so far. Potemkin introduced me to foreign cinema (not a bad way to start) and using all of the elements of film to build a manipulative tension that's still striking 90 years later. The General hit me even harder, showing me how precise and inventive a film can be for the sake of comedy (completely blowing two guys talking about Star Wars and making dick jokes out of the water).
I recently watched The General for the first time in years and it got me thinking about its impact on cinematic history (and me) and why Keaton is still not as widely known or loved as much as Charlie Chaplin. I know Buster Keaton is respected by film lovers, but if you walk up to a random person on the street, I can guarantee they'd be more likely to recognize Chaplin and his Tramp character than Keaton's various "stone face" roles. Although I've come to enjoy Chaplin's work and appreciate what he did for cinema, Keaton has always been my guy. Chaplin was always pushing a likeable loser character into wild situations, but to me it always came off as a guy slumming it and playing down to appeal to a mass audience. Buster Keaton always felt like more of an everyman in his roles, but maintained the air of being in control with the skill to get exactly what he wanted and risking everything for the sake of a gag. Although Keaton holds a slightly lower place in history than Chaplin (showing up about 10 spaces lower on AFI's lists of Greatest American Screen Legends and Films), his work is what I always come back to when I think of the greatest comedic and silent films in existence.
It's interesting that this film, that has since been seen as one of the all-time greatest, was initially received very poorly by both critics and audiences. Keaton got to work with his biggest budget and complete creative control, only to fizzle out at the box office, resulting in a loss in creative freedom and an ultimately soul crushing contract working with MGM. Strangely enough, he was criticized for making a comedy film about the Civil War, when just 11 years earlier D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, an offensive and almost comically racist film about the Civil War, that became the highest grossing film of all time until Gone With the Wind came along. Although Keaton still released some funny and worthwhile pictures after The General, this major setback kept us from ever seeing his ambition and talent grow with films that were truly his (he never got his City Lights/Modern Times period).
In The General, Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on the titular train. His love, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), shuns him after a misunderstanding that paints him as a coward for not joining the Confederate Army. What follows is an epic series of chases and set pieces where Johnnie must prove himself a hero and learn of his own worth by using his talents, passion, and resourcefulness. Keaton manages to pull off one of the most empathetic and silly characters, while also pulling off some of the most incredible stunts and visuals seen on film at the time. One amazing feat Keaton pulls off (doing his own stunts, as well as stunts for several other characters) involves him standing on the very front of a train, knocking one railroad tie off of the track with another. He also had a burning bridge collapse under a train in the destructive finale, just for the sake of surprising audiences with something real and unexpected.
While this film comes off as a larger story about the Civil War involving big set pieces, tons of extras, and more train action than Under Siege 2, at its core it's a small story about a nobody discovering his talents and bravery to become a somebody. It's also a story about love and proving your worth to a significant other. The two catalysts for the film's action are Johnnie thinking he isn't good enough to join the Confederate Army and wanting to get back the respect of Annabelle Lee after the first catalyst tears them apart. He's not your typical movie hero in that he throws himself into the action without thinking, not because he's trying to be heroic, but because he's the only guy that can do something in the situation. In a way, he's like a prototypical John McClane (sorry to always bring everything back to Die Hard). Yet, fear never really seems to cross his face. You can see that he's in over his head, but a combination of being resourceful and a bit aloof allow him to come out on top.
Another feat Keaton pulls off in his 1926 masterpiece is making the action truly exciting and even scary, considering the trains in the film are moving at relatively slow speeds compared to most vehicle-based action since. This is due to the amazing stunts that Keaton performs and his camera placement on and around the train to make the audience feel a part of the action. While most films at the time with action pieces used more static camera shots to simply observe the events in front of them, Keaton places the camera either atop the train (where you feel every shake and turn) or has the camera running alongside the train, keeping the audience moving at the same breakneck pace as Keaton and The General. This film completely blows the lid off of the stereotype of silent movies being boring or slow, containing much more engaging action than most CGI-reliant action Blockbusters of today, because it's all real and taking place for a comedy. You can always feel the actual danger Keaton is in that could have easily cut his life short with one false step or poorly-timed jump.
The General is also ahead of the times with its lead female character, Annabelle Lee. Though she starts out as the typical love interest/damsel in distress, she eventually breaks through that mold (something that women in the film industry are still struggling with to this day), contributing to and having just as much impact on the action as our male hero. At the beginning of the film, she is only Johnnie's beloved, but still comes off as smarter and more in control of their relationship than he is. She is kidnapped as a catalyst for Johnnie to make a difference in the war and save her, but as soon as they reunite, she becomes a worthwhile character at least equal to our protagonist. She separates the front Union train car for their escape, feeds the train engine during the chase (though her ignorance in how to do so is played as a joke), keeps the Union officer on the train subdued when he wakes up, and has an overall positive contribution to them reaching their goal of getting warning the Confederate Army of the Union advance. In a film history where women were usually only used as helpless plot devices or representing evil incarnate against male leads, Marion Mack was able to form a strong and constructive female character.
Almost 90 years after its release, The General still stands out and holds up as one of the greatest films ever made. It has a visual style and flair that makes it seem much more modern than most silent films of the time. Keaton's film has a prolific sense of cinematography, scene composition, and editing that puts it miles ahead of its peers at a time when filmmaking was still a young art form and just starting to get its bearings. The way Keaton throws himself completely into every shot and stunt is awe-inspiring and his deadpan delivery while doing so makes every gag connect that much more. Keaton never got to make another film on The General's scale or with as much creative control, but still had an overall incredible career full of films that cemented him as one of silent cinema's greatest actor/directors. While Johnnie Gray may never be as instantly recognizable or loved as Chaplin's Tramp character, Buster Keaton deserves just as much respect for making a thrilling film of epic proportions that also happens to be really fucking funny.