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Movies of the Month > THE GENERAL (Buster Keaton, 1927)

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message 1: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5484 comments I wrote the below a while back, thought it might be of some interest. I've tweaked it a bit here and there.

"If you lose this war don't blame me."

Last night I watched one of my favorite films in a really nice new DVD. I love THE GENERAL. It is the Number One film in my personal Top Ten. Other films come and go, but THE GENERAL has been and is now and always will be at the top.

The plot couldn't be simpler. Train engineer Johnnie Gray's girlfriend won't see him anymore when he is unable to enlist in the Confederate Army (he tries, hilariously, but is not accepted for theperfectly intelligent reason that he is more important to the South as an engineer than as a soldier). About a year into the war, Johnnie's engine is stolen by a group of Northern spies. Johnnie gives chase, not realizing that his girlfriend is on the stolen train, now a prisoner. Eventually, he rescues the girl and recovers his engine and returns to the South, pursued by those who he had initially been pursuing. Johnnie manages to warn the Southern Army of a coming onslaught from the North, there is a big battle scene at the climax, and all ends well, and Johnnie is re-united with both his girl and his engine. That's pretty much it. The plot is a basic outline that supports aseries of gorgeous gags, each funnier and richer than the one before it. Intertitles are kept to a minimum, and I wouldn't be surprisedto find out that THE GENERAL contained fewer than the average numberof intertitles for feature-length silent films.

My eye was caught by the sheer scale of the battle scene at the end. It is one of the very best I've ever seen, on a level with the best of Griffith, Kurosawa, Lean or Coppola or Jackson. What is most remarkable about this scene is that Keaton's comic moments (and the comedy in the battle sequence is only centered on his actions) do not detract from the magnitude of the battle. He (and his co-director Clyde Bruckman) plays a rather high stakes game as a director, keeping the war serious and the comedy funny, and he pulls it off handsomely.

I have to say that something about the film has started to bother me, namely the whole issue of Keaton's Johnnie Gray as a Confederate. I'd always taken the fact that Johnnie Gray is joining the Confederate Army (the losing team, as it were) as part of the dark chill that can occasionally be felt in Keaton's work, like the straightforward shoot-out at the beginning of OUR HOSPITALITY, or the funereal fadeouts of COPS and COLLEGE. The realities of the then-current political situation in the South are never an issue in THE GENERAL, except that a Civil War starts between the North and the South (I don't remember if the words Union or Confederate are even used in the title cards.) It doesn't really try to deal seriously with anything except Keaton/Johnnie's skills as a train engineer and impromptu military tactician. But does not dealing with this give Keaton carte blanche? Would I be as ready to forgive Keaton if the film was set during WWII and Keaton was playing a German who isn't allowed to join the SS, and has to rescue his train from a bunch of Allied spies? And if I'm going to have a problem with GONE WITH THE WIND for pretty blatantly romanticizing the pre-war South (and I do) is it really fair to let Keaton off the hook?

THE GENERAL is far from unique in this regard. A lot of films and novels (BIRTH OF A NATION, GONE WITH THE WIND) set during this period show a willingness to gloss over the vilenesses of life in theSouth and to see a sort of nobility in their side of the Civil War,the once proud brought low and all that. If BIRTH OF A NATION is completely inexcusable, and I think it is, I think I can find some mitigating elements in GONE WITH THE WIND.

BIRTH OF A NATION engages these political issues head on, and of course makes a hideous racist hash of the whole thing. In BIRTH, African Americans were happy under slavery, dancing merrily for their white masters until the chaotic freedom comes and they decide they are as good as white folks and start to rape white women, thus creating a need for the Ku Klux Klan, the organization that "saved the South," and after white supremacy is restored, our White Hero and Heroine get to happily contemplate a future where they rule supreme and darkies know their place.

GONE WITH THE WIND is rather more circumspect, trying to have it both ways. The big problem with GONE WITH THE WIND is its sentimental nostalgia for the "South" as an institution, a sentimentality that is allowed to overwhelm the occasional reminderof that pesky issue of slavery. The film (I've never read the book) pretty shamelessly romanticizes the Old South, calling it a world that only wants to be graceful and beautiful (the opening scroll refers to a land of knights and their ladies fair). Of course, the characters in the film who wax thus are usually people whose opinions on the matter I'm not going to necessarily take at face value.

And there are some rather pointed reminders that all wasn't moonlight and magnolias. When Ashley Wilkes raises objections to Scarlett's hiring of convict workers, actually saying that he will not profit from the enforced labor of others, Scarlett bites right back with a reminder that he wasn't so particular about owning slaves. Ashley's rejoinder that "we didn't treat (slaves)" as brutally as an overseer of hired convicts treats his chained workers can, I think, be seen as an indication of how clueless he really is about the realities of the South that he longs to return to ("aworld that only wants to be graceful and beautiful"), and about life in general.

Clearly THE GENERAL is another order of film altogether. Both BIRTH and GWTW are rather self-consciously Epic – the stories span several years, the films are super-productions, etc. The main action of THE GENERAL encompasses about 48 hours (I'm not counting the year which passes via title card, or the opening scenes that take place in probably a single afternoon). There aren't any real pretensions to Griffithian size and scale in THE GENERAL, or at least no pretensions to a story with Epic Sweep and Grandeur. And of course, THE GENERAL is what some would call "just a comedy."

I think I'm just going to have to see this aspect of THE GENERAL as being part of what I sometimes think of as the Keaton Chill: how happy can we be at someone becoming an officer in the army that is going to lose, and lose big time? I'm not pretending to have all the answers here, and I'll admit that my grasp of Civil War history is pretty loose. This has just been on my mind a good bit lately.

message 2: by Alex DeLarge (new)

Alex DeLarge | 851 comments Great post Tom! I have never seen THE GENERAL and am moving it to the top of my queue now that a new remastered DVD has been released. Come to think of it, I'll just put it on my Holiday list and own it:) I've been wanting to see this for many years but now you have inspired me.
The insight into characters who maybe do not deserve our sympathy is right-on, and one of the reasons I never connected to GWTW. I visited Savannah, GA last year and some residents still minimize slavery. I took a tour of a historical house (where General Sherman stayed) and asked about the slave quarters. The owner became blustery and said that they weren't slaves, they were household servants...and treated well. Like that makes it better.

message 3: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5484 comments Don't get me wrong, I like GWTW a good deal. It has some of the best filmmaking of the 1930s, and some of the best acting you'll ever see anywhere, particularly Vivien Leigh's splendid turn as Scarlett and, yes, I'll say it, Hattie McDaniel's brilliant performance as Mammy.

message 4: by Alex DeLarge (new)

Alex DeLarge | 851 comments And GWTW has one the greatest transitions in film history at the intermission; it is a beatufully photographed film, no doubt. I just have never connected with Scarlett.

message 5: by Marc (new)

Marc (authorguy) | 325 comments The whole story is about the engineer getting the girl, nothing larger. It's not an epic and shouldn't be blown up to impersonate one. It's quite clear he's a fake officer, the northern army follows him and he impersonates an officer to rally a counter-attack against an enemy he knows is coming. Even becoming an officer at the end doesn't change that, it's simply the neatest and fastest way to tie up the story so he and she can have their HEA. Even as an officer he probably won't be sent to battle but used as an engineer.

message 6: by Manuel (new)

Manuel | 469 comments I loved "The General" when I first saw it in college.

It made me into a life long fan of Buster Keaton's work.

I am often times accused of "over-thinking" the movies I watch; always looking for the man standing behind the curtain.
As much as I loved the movie, it has always bothered me a bit, that our hero is fighting for the wrong side. It doesnt diminish Keaton's comic genius and talents, but it does leave me with a feeling of a "pea underneath my matress"

You make some wonderful points Tom, regarding other movies set in the Ole South.

When I saw Gone with the Wind in a crowed movie theatre. The scene with the slavery dialogue between Scarlet and Rhett was playing. Many people clapped or gasped at Scarlett's retort to Rhett about him OWNING slaves. Somehow I dont think that would have happened when the movie was released in 1939.

message 7: by Jack (new)

Jack Gunthridge (jackgunthridge) | 1 comments Have you seen the remastered version? I own the previous Kino edition. I'm torn about picking up the new version.

message 8: by Tom (new)

Tom | 5484 comments The new Kino DVD is terrific, well worth getting. The picture is much clearer, there's just no comparison.

message 9: by Noel (last edited Dec 18, 2008 11:06PM) (new)

Noel Hynd | 5 comments Tom: I agree. The General is a wonderful movie. I saw it at The Silent Movie in Los Angeles about 10 years ago.....Did you know that one of the actors, Mike Donlin, was actually a professional baseball player with the New York Giants in the first decade of the 20th century? He was a rowdy character who was in and out of jail from time to time, typical of many of the ball players of his era. Twenty-some years ago I wrote a book titled "The Giants of The Polo Grounds" (published by Doubleday in 1988, I believe) and came across this. Donlin can be seen I believe as a Confederate general....Btw, Disney re-made the story as "The Great Locomotive Chase" in the 1950's.

Noel Hynd
Los Angeles

message 10: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Among silent comedy fans there are the Keaton people and the Chaplin people. We might admire the work of the other, but there's a definite preference.

I've always been a big Buster Keaton fan and love introducing my students to movies like "The General," "Sherlock Jr." and "Steamboat Bill Jr." I'm teaching two film courses next semester and having just seen "The General" and "Sherlock Jr." last fall, I'm wondering if I should try using "The Navigator" or "Seven Chances."

"The General" is certainly one of the great Keaton films and one of the landmarks of the silent cinema.

message 11: by Tentatively, (new)

Tentatively, Convenience (tentativelyaconvenience) I love Keaton & Chaplin both - but my favorite discovery of silent-era comedians is Charlie Bowers. Not only was he a great comedic actor but an ANIMATOR as well. Of course, Chaplin was a composer too. & then Keaton was in a Samuel Beckett movie "Film" - so all 3 have a pretty amazing body of work. Keaton even makes a cameo appearance in Chaplin's "Limelght".

message 12: by Eric (new)

Eric (chrome) The Audition. A japenese horror movie that was distrubing on a level I have not experienced since ... I don't know when.

message 13: by melbourne (new)

melbourne (cocho) | 80 comments While I do not belong to either the Chaplin or Keaton camps, the significance of Keaton cannot be overlooked, although it does seem at times that he is overshadowed by his English counterpart. I've been conducting monthly screenings at my place of work for six years and ever so often I do try to screen a Keaton film just to introduce him to younger people. I've screen The General and Sherlock Jr. (along with The Purple Rose of Cairo) and have been impressed with the response of audiences. Glad to see some discussion here of the landmark filmmaker. Easily one of the early auteurs long before the distinction became en vogue.

message 14: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Try some of Keaton's shorts as well as the features "Seven Chances," "Steamboat Bill Jr." and "Our Hospitality."

message 15: by melbourne (new)

melbourne (cocho) | 80 comments Daniel M. wrote: "Try some of Keaton's shorts as well as the features "Seven Chances," "Steamboat Bill Jr." and "Our Hospitality.""

I rather like Steamboat Bill, Jr. The other two I will try to view.


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