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  General, The The Age Of Steam
Year: 1926
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Genre: Comedy, Action, War, Romance, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) has two loves in his life, his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his steam locomotive The General, which he tends to with great care and attention. But the Civil War is raging, and getting closer to the smalltown where he stays, so when he one day visits her at home to hear that her brother and father are going to enlist, she tells him he should do the same and join up with the Confederate Army. Eager to please, he rushes over to the recruitment office and jumps to the front of the queue, only to be informed there and then that he is disqualified thanks to his job. The officials believe he is too valuable as an engineer, but he doesn't understand...

And if Johnnie doesn't understand, then what hope has Annabelle Lee, who tells him in no uncertain terms that the next time she speaks to him, it will only be because he is in uniform, and since there's no chance of that now, well, he has good reason to be despondent. Keaton himself had reason to be despondent when after this, not merely one of his most ambitious films, but one of the most ambitious of the silent era, was greeted with audience apathy and critical disdain - read those reviews of the time and you may be shocked at how hostile they were to this, and not because the reviewers were all Northerners with their noses out of joint thanks to being depicted as the villains, either.

It's a curious thing, how Hollywood was often on the side of the South in its Civil War movies, Gone With the Wind being the most famous and successful example, but the shadow of Birth of a Nation which legitimised racism in the minds of too many Americans of its day looms large, and may make modern viewers uncomfortable. But Keaton was not making a flagwaver for a long ago lost cause, and he included sly digs at the notion the Confederates were cheated out of their victory: "Don't blame me if you lose this war!" says a disgruntled Johnnie to the drafters. And it was based on a true story of the Civil conflict, which proved irresistible to him when it opened up so many opportunities.

Although commonly thought of as a comedy, and there were assuredly some big laughs in The General, Keaton set his sights on making a more gritty, realistic war movie than his previous, often whimsical efforts had indicated, and he undertook a lot of research to get the look of the film just right, event to the extent of intending it to be those Civil War photographs brought to life for the cinema. You can tell that plenty of thought had gone into this, yes, the stunts were incredible as was accustomed with Keaton's features, but there was more texture here than even Charlie Chaplin was attempting at the time, weaving war, romance, disillusionment and those gags into a work that even today looks a cut above what the majority of silent movies were trying out; Keaton was nothing if not ambitious.

The plot jumped a year later and Johnnie remains on The General, clinging onto it as the train won't let him down like people have, but then Union spies arrive and steal it, and our hero will not stand for that. He chases his prized possession in another locomotive, and here the film resolves itself into a form Keaton was comfortable with, the chase sequence, only it was a sequence lasting the entire movie, both one way and back the other. To add interest, Annabelle Lee is on The General too, kidnapped and in need of rescue (that cliché was old even when it was used here), and once Johnnie catches up with them both, he eavesdrops on a plot to attack his town that could have devastating consequences, and must therefore get back, with Annabelle Lee who proves mightily unhelpful (this was Mack's moment of screen glory, and she seized it enthusiastically), to warn the Southern Army that disaster is looming. As said, there were the requisite Keaton laughs, but get to the end and the grand finale was an unexpectedly committed depiction of the Civil War, fair enough there was still buffoonery, but the sense that combat was no laughing matter when you boiled it down may have been what rubbed the contemporary audience up the wrong way. As a film, quite an achievement.

[The General has been released by Eureka in a box set trilogy with Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill, Jr, three of the greatest silent comedies ever created. They are all restored to impressive clarity, and have a wealth of featurettes, introductions, a commentary and a booklet as extras. The perfect introduction to an enduring genius.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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