This year with my blind spot list, I wanted to have a look at a silent film and focus that film on one of the big stars of the period whose work I haven’t seen before, and Buster Keaton fit the bill. Now I’m familiar with the stunt-work of Buster Keaton and how it’s inspired people throughout the decades, most notable the works of Jackie Chan, but I’ve never seen a full film of his, and considering that it’s viewed as his masterpiece, The General seemed like the right call, although on the whole I was a bit disappointed by it.
The film focuses on a recreation of the Great Locomotive Chase, an event during the American Civil War, with the film focusing on Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer denied entry into the Confederate Army, who eventually has to become a hero for the Confederacy after Union soldiers steal his train, The General, planning to use the trains to cut off the supply lines for the Confederacy and launch a series of surprise attacks, with it being up to Johnnie and his fiancee Annabelle to stop them. Now there are elements of the plot that worked, the chase element of the film works well and I liked the ideas at the start around the perception of people denied entry in the army at a time when it was socially unacceptable not to be in the army, but for the rest of the film I wasn’t really engaged. As the film went on, it started to get more repetitive for me, with the more comedic elements of the film going on a bit too long. This wasn’t helped by the music in the version of the film that I saw, virtually none of which fitting the tone of the film, with this helping to show me why specially arranged scores for silent films are needed.
There are also some issues with the plot coming around through the films lionisation of the Confederacy, something which cannot be avoided due to the historical event being depicted. With what’s happened over the past few weeks concerning the prominence of Confederate flags and statues of Confederate heroes, the whole idea of a film where we’re expected to root for the Confederacy does feel uncomfortable now.
The main area where I will praise The General though is with the stunt-work. Even to this day, the work that Buster Keaton does in The General has rarely been surpassed. The use of real moving trains throughout the film gives the film a sense of danger and tension throughout every scene focusing on the train chase that cannot be replicated. The knowledge that just one wrong move could cause serious injury, especially considering the safety standards of the 1920s compared to today, gives the film a unique power that only silent films can provide.
Overall, whilst I do respect what Buster Keaton did with The General, it ultimately didn’t really do anything for me. Sure the stunts were incredible but the overall structure of the film felt very repetitive and ultimately didn’t grab my attention in the way it needed to.
My Rating: 3/5