THE GENERAL (1925)
Review by Michael Jacobson
Buster Keaton, Marian Mack
Directors: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Image Entertainment
Features: Two Buster Keaton Short Films
Length: 75 Minutes
Release Date: October 26, 1999
For me, the controversial AFI Top 100 films list lost all
credibility by failing to include even one movie by one of America’s most
imaginative and gifted filmmakers, Buster Keaton. Particularly, the omission of The
General, considered by many critics worldwide to be one of the top ten
movies ever made, almost always scoring higher rankings than any Chaplin film.
The General is a
masterpiece in many ways. One, it
remains a thoroughly exciting and entertaining movie, even more than 70 years
after its release. Two, it’s the
film that most accurately captured the look of Civil War America, by
painstakingly recreating sets and costumes from old Matthew Brady photographs.
“Make it so real, it hurts,” Buster was quoted as saying to his
designers. As such, this film
really is the war come to life for most modern audiences.
Three, it was a comedy so far ahead of its time that today, it seems like
one of the freshest pictures from the silent era, even though it largely failed
to find an audience during its day.
The General had
been a project long on the burner for Keaton, who found inspiration in a true
Civil War story about a group of Yankees who stole a southern train and drove it
north with the intention of burning bridges behind him.
Since Buster had long been one of his most profitable stars, producer
Joseph Schenck finally greenlighted his pet project, and the incredible amount
of money it would take to realize his vision.
Buster plays Johnnie Gray, a southern engineer with only
two loves: his train, and his lady,
Annabelle Lee (Mack). When the war
breaks out, he finds his chance to prove his mettle by enlisting.
But being more valuable as an engineer, the army refuses to take him.
“If you lose this war, don’t blame me,” he tells them.
But his girl, thinking him a coward for not enlisting, wants nothing more
to do with him.
As fate would have it, she ends up on his train, The
General, as it heads north. While
passengers and crew are at lunch, a division of Yankee soldiers seize the train
and make off with it, taking Annabelle along as a hostage.
Thus begins one of the cinema’s great chases, as Johnnie finds another
train and sets off in pursuit.
This premise served two purposes: one, it allowed Buster, one of the greatest physical
comedians and stuntmen who ever lived, almost unlimited possibilities for
hysterical gags and breathtaking feats, most of which come from him trying to
operate the train, fight the bad guys, and protect himself from their acts of
sabotage single handedly—all while he and his train stay on the move. And second, the fact that the film stays in almost constant
motion makes the picture an exciting experience. The action never lets up, and Buster’s masterful use of
tracking shots plays beautifully.
The second half of the film is the reverse of the
first…once Johnnie has rescued Annabelle and learned of the Northerners’
plans to bring a supply train down south to make their army unbeatable, the two
must race back on The General, this time with the Yankees pursuing them, in
order to warn of the attack. One
scene demonstrates Buster’s mastery of tracking and timing:
we see the Yankee train pull right behind Johnnie’s box car, and begin
to climb aboard. As they do, the
camera moves forward to the front of the box car, where we see Johnnie is
loosing it, one step ahead of them.
The chase leads to the movie’s climactic scene—the most
expensive single shot of the silent era. The
Yankee train attempts to cross a bridge Johnnie has set fire to, and the entire
rig collapses, dumping the train into the river below.
People came from miles around to witness the filming of the crash…a
stunt so bold and costly, it could only be done once.
Thankfully, it worked on the first take.
The locomotive’s destruction leads to a terrific battle
sequence at the river, one of the biggest and most painstakingly constructed
ever. Explosions were set
everywhere, and Buster had to be cautious as to when and where they would be set
off, and letting his enormous cast of extras know exactly where they would be,
so no one would get hurt. When the
picture was finished, Buster was certain it was his masterpiece.
Critics and audiences at the time, however, were not so
sure. It still boggles my mind to
read actual film reviews from that time period and try to believe that so many
hated this classic picture. Why?
Well, as mentioned, Buster’s film was definitely ahead of its time.
People were actually appalled at the notion that he created a comedy
about a war. War was not something
to laugh at, and word quickly got around that The
General was a distasteful picture. The
film didn’t come close to recouping its enormous cost.
As such, Buster, not unlike Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, created what would one day be considered one of the
greatest films ever made, but the ironic initial failure would both haunt and
begin the unraveling of the remainder of his career.
This disc is actually the Kino version of the film, distributed by Image on DVD. Having looked for some time, I found theirs to be the best looking version of The General I could come up with. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as I would like. Images on screen are sharp, clear, and well defined…no complaints there, and very little in the way of grain. The picture even boasts the correct original color tinting. The problem is, the film is very old, and looks it. The negative has been ravaged by time, leaving more than a share of streaks, scratches, spots, scars, and other nasty bits of business. Will it ever look better? I don’t know, but I’d like to see Criterion try. That being said, the image is far from unwatchable. As I said, it merely shows its age. I must repeat that it’s the best looking version of The General I’ve yet seen.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack features a newly recorded
musical score, and sounds quite good. No complaints.
Like the VHS version, the disc contains two excellent
shorts from Buster Keaton. In
“The Playhouse”, Buster uses skillful trick photography with tight editing
and careful use of multiple exposures to create a minstrel show where he’s the
only attraction…all the players on stage, in the orchestra, and even all of
the audience members. In
“Cops”, one of his most popular short films, Buster plays a naïve character
who always seems to be getting in trouble right under the noses of the police.
The finale, where he’s chased by hundreds of cops through the streets,
is quite a spectacle. This film also features some of Buster’s best and most