Saturday, May 31, 2008

The General

Buster Keaton starred in and co-directed The General, a silent 1927 film loosely based on the famous 1862 Civil War episode in which Northern spies stole a Southern train (named the General) and were pursued by Southern troops. (The episode is known as the Great Locomotive Chase). Keaton plays a train engineer named Johnnie Gray whose locomotive is stolen. Annabelle, the girl he loves, is accidentally aboard the train, checking her trunk, and when the northern spies take the train she goes with it. This 75-minute film is fun to watch, and it rarely flags. The General is not what I would call a slapstick film, but there is plenty of comedy, most of it visual comedy involving Keaton walking back and forth on top of the train, jumping from car to car, once even riding up and down on the side rods that drive the locomotive. Taken individually, most of the stunts are not that impressive. Taken all together, however, they constitute a seemingly endless and intricately varied series of jokes, stunts, tricks, pranks, and pratfalls—effortlessly, naturally executed. The film is highly entertaining.

The General is told from a southern point of view, but this is only because Keaton's character is a Southerner. Other than the mere fact of whose side he is on, there is little that makes this film southern or northern. The issues and causes of the war have nothing to do with this film, nor is there any romanticism attached to the conflict between north and south. When the war begins, Keaton tries to enlist in the Southern army but is refused by the enlistment office because, they say, he can do better service as a train engineer. His girlfriend mistakenly believes he refused to enlist, so she stops talking to him. When his locomotive is stolen by Northern troops, he has a chance to do service to the southern cause and win back the heart of his girl at the same time. That's about all there is to this film--sight gags, action, constant motion (the trains are in pursuit of or attempting to escape each other throughout the film), ingenious comic stunts, valiant and quixotically incompetent efforts by Keaton's character to thwart the spies, and a dramatic battle and train wreck at the end. The Northern troops are defeated, the Southern troops win, Keaton wins back his girl, and he is allowed to enlist.

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