(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Rejected by the Confederate army as unfit and taken for a coward by his beloved Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), young Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) sets out to single-handedly win the war with the help of his cherished locomotive.
– From DVD Production Notes
The General is one of those classic films that the average moviegoer may know about but have never seen. It has become one of the most revered and praised of the comedy silents, but perhaps misunderstood and taken too seriously. I’d assume most people would glance at the DVD box, read the synopsis and think, “Okay, trains… The Civil War… there’s no sound… the guy isn’t smiling. It doesn’t look that funny.”
On the other hand, you have respected filmmakers and critics such as Orson Welles and Roger Ebert naming it as one of the most essential, important films of the 20th century. David Cross joked about its prestige in an interview, claiming it was his favorite comedy because it was the most pretentious answer he could think of.
In a way each of these opinions ring true. If you’ve seen The General, it’s likely that you took a film course in college or have a specific fondness for silent films. I’m not sure if hipsters have leapt onto The General bandwagon, but I suppose they could. After all, Keaton swaps out a locomotive for a pretty sweet bike.
However, in spite of the film’s reputation it simply is what it is: a fairly simple, sweet coming-of-age story about a young engineer and the two loves in his life. One is Annabelle Lee, the girl of his dreams. The other is a steam engine. Can you think of someone who is absolutely obsessed with their car/truck/bike/boat? They might understand Johnnie Gray more than they would’ve expected, regardless of the time period.
The conflict arises when both loves are taken from him in different ways, forcing him to prove himself and take on some daring, nearly impossible tasks. He begins his journey in pursuit of his engine, who may be Keaton’s greatest onscreen “match” (some claim his greatest pairing was Brown Eyes in Go West). This leads to a chance reunion with Annabelle Lee and they team up with reinforcements before taking on the entire Union army.
To say the least, Keaton performs gags and stunts that make today’s comedians seem… I don’t know… lazy. He had already completed Our Hospitality, which served as a sort of train stunt dress rehearsal. In The General he takes things to the next level, introducing cannons, hundreds of extras and collapsing an entire goddamn bridge.
Johnnie Gray also proves to be a culmination of Keaton’s acting in previous films, and is perhaps his best known character. He’s an unruffled, naive and well-meaning underdog facing some ridiculous circumstances. There are moments critics deem iconic because the film has been called his “masterpiece.” And indeed, like many of his works, his subtleties are just as graceful as the bigger moments.
So why is The General considered more important than his other films? In my case I simply don’t know, but can guess. It might be the most universal- or American- of his career. There’s a brashness to it, particularly framing the story from the Southern perspective (namely, the losing side of a war), with less of an interest in politics than in pitting the little guy against unspeakable odds. We all know the outcome of the war, but in Johnnie’s world that’s hardly relevant. He has won his battle.
Although The General is not my favorite favorite of Keaton’s films, it’s definitely a standard. The film’s scope is wide although its character is made to feel so insignificant and small. We all feel that way sometimes. Keaton is a master in portraying that before his characters turn the situation upside down and get noticed. Johnnie Gray is the only one to achieve full-fledged hero status.
Which is kind of funny within itself. After all, anyone who watches The General knows he isn’t perfect.
What I find the most intriguing about The General is that Keaton made it like the rest of his films, to challenge himself and suit his sensibilities. It was simply something he wanted to do, a dream of his own.
The truth is the film was a failure upon its release and wasn’t recognized or praised until decades later. But Keaton didn’t seem to care or dwell on it much. He told George C. Pratt in 1958, “It held an audience. They were interested in it- from start to finish- and there was enough laughter to satisfy.”