Thursday, June 30, 2011

The General (Keaton. 1926)

"An even harder act to follow..."

After Seven Chances, it did not take long for me to seek out another film by Buster Keaton. As much as I loved the aforementioned film, I had still not been introduced to his most classic work – The General. This is an epic war film that hides under the guise of a comedy. Keaton is at the top of his game with this one, and I feel privileged that I was able to enjoy such a work.

Like most of Buster’s movies, The General tells the story of a lowly man who is on love with the girl next door. The twist is that he is a southerner in the early stages of the Civil War. His girlfriend refuses to see him until he enlists in the Confederate army, but the army feels that he would be more valuable in his day job. So, rather than joining the army, he reluctantly remains the engineer of a powerful steam engine. His girlfriend sees him as a disgrace to the Confederacy.

As time goes by, Johnny Grey (Keaton) becomes accustomed to his role as an engineer, but he still desires to be a soldier. He finally gets his chance when a group of Union soldiers steal his beloved steam engine. Grey singlehandedly rescues his train, and girlfriend in the process, from the enemy in an action packed chase sequence that lasted the majority of the film.

Though the film does star the famously comedic Buster Keaton, I do not see this as a comedic film. The General plays like your modern day action film. In fact, it is the 1926 equivalent of a film like Taken (2008). It sets out the basic action flick formula with a loved one being captured and one man heroically breaking enemy lines to save her. How he goes about the rescue is what really makes The General a memorable film.

Like all of the Keaton films that I have seen so far, The General is silent. But this is not a film that lacks any sort of entertainment value. In 1926, Keaton was thirty-one years old, yet we see some of his most memorable stunts in this film. This includes a distraught Johnny Grey riding the connecter rods of a moving steam engine, and a heroic Johnny Grey climbing all over the engine while it is going at top speeds. It is the slapstick stunts that give the film an overall aura of comedy, but in this case they are more breathtaking than laugh-worthy.

As the most acclaimed and loved film by Buster Keaton, The General has left a lasting impression on the comedic, war and romance genres. It reminded me mostly of a film from the action genre. Needless to say, any film that can cross that many paths is a winner. Keaton is the human cartoon character and the impossible act to follow. We knew all of that before The General. What we found out is that Keaton is also an action hero. This is a great movie.

The General: A-

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