Review: The General (dir. Buster Keaton, 1926)

Rarely does a film jump straight into the top-ranking figures of my favourite, most-acclaimed films, so I review The General with caution. Perhaps I was just so pleasantly surprised by my first silent comedy film experience? Potentially, yes, as I have nothing even remotely similar to compare it to; my knowledge of silent-era cinema is minimal. So, naturally, I thought, where better to start than with one of the most well-known silent film actors of all time starring in one of comedy’s best-regarded of all time?

Films I potentially spoil/refer to in this article:

–         The General (dir. Buster Keaton 1926)

The General has certainly stood the test of time. I found myself being caught off-guard by the creative, slapstick, and innovative wit throughout the entire duration of the film, genuinely chuckling out loud more than I have for many other films post-1926, which is a pretty moderate sum of them (cough all of them cough). It’s hard to believe that the film wasn’t overly well-received upon release, despite a major factor of its acclaim these days being for its timeless, universal appeal. I’ll try to refrain from using terms and anecdotes that highlight my prior lack of knowledge, although most of my initial thoughts cannot help but sound obvious… For example: “the lack of dialogue really makes you focus on their actions more!” and “it’s surprisingly funny even without words!” …

Keaton plays a train engineer named Johnnie Gray. Johnnie has two loves in his life, the first being his fiancée and the second being his train, although his train may as well be first. When in Georgia, Johnnie is informed that the Civil War has broken out, so he desperately tries but repeatedly fails to enlist in the army. Unimpressed, assuming that he was too cowardly to enlist, unbeknownst to the fact that he was turned down due to his already high-ranking importance as an engineer, Johnnie’s fiancée shows immediate disinterest and disappointment in him. She claims that she won’t speak to him until she sees him in uniform. This opening act doubles up as being both a clear and concise introduction to the narrative, and also host to an array of fantastic comedic set pieces. It’s remarkable how many times Keaton can continuously entertain by creating new punchline responses to the same scenario; a standout opening sequence sees him repeatedly cut in line at the registration office, attempting to trick the registration officer. His energy is revitalising to watch in comparison to the devolution of much of today’s slapstick comedy. Keaton’s directorial command is concise and efficient and plays a major part in conveying some of the less intensely slapstick gags which aren’t as reliant on his physical stuntman talents. He displays monumental skill in framing, timing and orchestrating every scene; the scene where Johnnie steals a bike by leaping into frame, for example, jumps to mind. Albeit the joke expected, it’s nonetheless funny due to his sudden and chaotic emergence. His impressive athletic ability is yet another unique attribute that makes the film so engaging. Even when he isn’t falling or flailing around, his solemn, sarcastic, exaggeratively expressive yet equally inexpressive face is oddly fascinating to watch.

The General
Image Credit: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The audacity and scale of this, I promised I wouldn’t say it… “visual” humour, is amplified when Johnnie’s train gets stolen by Northern forces. Keaton carries over the aforementioned trait of cramming as many jokes as he can into this second act, and he does so superbly. The broad array of stunts that take place on the trains become immediately iconic and thrilling. Understanding that there’s very limited aid from CGI or other effects makes the sequences feel even more high-stakes and it ups the ante for the loveable protagonist that you’re rooting for. Keaton, commandeering another train to pursue his beloved, ambles up and down carriages with admirable agility and balance, firing cannons, leaping on and off platforms, daringly removing debris from the coming tracks; the list of memorable moments is extensive and addictive to watch, not to mention also gorgeously shot. Frame composition and tracking is luscious and impressive; many shots see the trains and their multiple occupants silhouetted against the grand American plains background, but never to the extent where it becomes distracting or self-indulgent. A more leisurely paced third act sees Johnnie essentially join the army by mistake and find himself in the midst of the battle. It’s a culmination of the first two acts, blending the smart writing of the first with the grandiose scale of the second. It’s a reminder of the scale of the film also, which is taken to new, dramatic heights and utilised with awe-inducing mastery.   

The General is entirely deserving of its legendary status, and a wonderful starting point on both Keaton and silent cinema if you’re new to it like me. It’s difficult to review it without simply listing favourite moments, as that’s essentially what the project is, a continuous railroad of gags. In no way, however, is this lack of external, thematic depth a detriment; in fact, it’s very refreshing, unadulterated fun. I thoroughly enjoyed having a laugh with a film that wasn’t demanding or asking anything of me, other than to laugh. To paraphrase Roger Ebert’s thoughts on Keaton, which I believe he hit the nail on the head in saying, Keaton doesn’t seem to overact, ever. His composure is paramount in scenes of chaos, which is where the comedy lies, his immobile face more simultaneously contemplative, paranoid and bewildered than superfluously expressive and silly. His understating of scenes of chaos is extremely funny as you’re never sure if even he is fully aware of the magnitude of his doings. And if the lead performer’s face is just the tip of the iceberg that The General has to offer, then you know you’re in for a treat when the rest of it begins to unfold.

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