Thursday, March 10, 2011
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 18
Writer: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Star: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Jim Farley
The more real the comedy is, the more awesome it becomes. “The General” is a comedy of moments, each one as real and visceral as the next. There is a never a scene we doubt that Buster Keaton is performing hugely-dangerous stunts on a real, moving train, and because of that the film reaches moments of transcendence. You can’t help but hit the rewind button on your remote dozens of times because you just can’t believe what he pulled off this time.
“The General” springs to life when its hero, Johnny Gray (Keaton) is aboard his train. The film revolves around two very intricate chase scenes involving multiple trains, most notably The General of the title, of which Keaton is the engineer, and as long as we are on those trains, the movie is close to flawless. It’s when the characters place foot on land that the movie goes off the rails (yes, that will be the last train metaphor of this review. Hopefully.)
The film takes place during the Civil War, and we are informed via title cards that Johnny has two great loves in his life: his train and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnny tries (unsuccessfully) to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress Annabelle, who dismisses him because he doesn’t have a uniform. One day both Annabelle and The General are stolen by Union soldiers and Johnny immediately gives chase.
Waitaminute…let me back up. Yes, our hero is desperate to enlist in the Confederate Army. And we see him fighting and winning battles for the South. So basically…he’s fighting for slavery. Okay, as much as I try to avoid research and other critical analysis of the films I discuss in order to approach the AFI Top 100 as freshly as possible, there’s been so much written about the film that knowledge of how it came to be is almost unavoidable in film circles. I have never seen an article or even a part of the article commenting on the fact that we are supposed to be rooting for slavery here. Yes, I know it seems like Johnny is only trying to enlist because he’s trying to impress Annabelle. And yes, I know there are more racist films in the era (“Birth of a Nation” anyone?) and after (the pre-code musical “Wonder Bar” featured a chorus of a hundred men in blackface going to heaven to frolic in, among other things, a forest of pork chops. Seriously.) And I know it’s supposed to be a lighthearted comedy. But my gut doesn’t care…when Johnny wins a big battle for the Confederates and is appointed a Lieutenant, it just doesn’t feel right. Even though the film is based on a true story, how difficult would it have been to switch Johnny’s affiliations to the Union? Hollywood makes much bigger changes to reality than that without blinking.
Moving away from my gut and back to the film…many of the comedy beats within the two chase sequences are close to perfection. As written previously, the stunts and intricate gags are jaw-dropping, as when we see Keaton, who is seated on the front of the moving train, throw a perfectly aimed gigantic railroad tie at another one lying on the rails blocking the train’s progress. The tie hits the other and both fall from the rails. If it missed, both ties would have inevitably hit the front of the train and probably crushed Keaton. In this stunt and every other, it’s perfectly obvious it’s Keaton doing all the work, which just adds to the coolness factor.
You would think that the fact that this is a train chase would limit the creativity of the action, but the opposite is true. In fact, I’d venture to say that just about everything that can be done with trains is done in “The General.” The trains switch tracks numerous times like toys on a track, ram one another, come apart, push flaming cars, race forward and backward…and that list barely scratches the surface. My favorite gag comes when Johnny lights a canon his train is pulling, aiming it to fire past his train and hit the Union train in front of his. As he finishes and crawls away, the canon begins to shift because of the movement and aims itself directly at Keaton. And then, of course, there is the phenomenal image of one of the trains (a real train, not a miniature) falling from a bridge into a river below.
Keaton manages to do all of this with a straight face. He never overreacts, which underlines the moments subtly instead of lessening their impact by spotlighting them. It’s a shame the person Johnny is doing all this for is such a loser. Annabelle is nothing more a wet rag, non-entity for the entire film. We aren’t given any reason to believe in Johnny’s love for her, and then when he rescues her from Union forces she does nothing but screw up and almost get Johnny killed over and over. First she gets caught in a bear-trap (one of the only comedic misfires in the film), then drives the General away before Johnny can get back on it on multiple occasions. You want to cheer when Johnny finally has his fill and throws a log at her while they are trying to set a booby-trap. This is a major hurdle that the film cannot cross—when the couple gets together at the end you don’t feel like cheering: You wish Johnny would drop the dead weight and find a real woman.
It’s almost unfair to compare Keaton with Charlie Chaplin (even though it’s done all the time) because their comedy styles are so different. It’s not the comedy that’s missing from “The General,” but the soul, and that’s what every major Chaplin film has in spades. Annabelle can’t even come close to competing with the Blind Girl from “City Lights” or the Gamin from “Modern Times.” With the heart of the film missing, all you have is a comedy of really astonishing moments with little underneath them.
My Score (out of 5): ***1/2