“[The General contains] the purest distillation of Buster Keaton’s style and persona. If you want to know who he was, as an artist and a man, just watch the ten minutes or so that make up the first chase sequence.”
Imogen Sara Smith, Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy (160)
Whether you’re a seasoned Keaton fan or a newcomer, The General is an odd film. Those who come to the film expecting “the greatest war comedy ever made” often leave puzzled, quick to deride it as “overrated.” When the film debuted in 1926, critics and audiences alike denounced it as Keaton’s “least funny” picture, leaving the movie lukewarm box office returns.
The General’s greatness does not come from the amount of belly laughs it inspires. Truth be told, Keaton’s short films, Seven Chances, and Steamboat Bill Jr. are all significantly funnier. It baffles my mind when people describe The General as a straightforward war comedy, because when looked at closely, the film defies genre classification. Yes, Buster Keaton is a comedian and yes, the film is largely comedic, but it is just as dramatic and suspenseful as it is funny. Yet it’s not a dramedy, at least not in the manner of Chaplin. And while the film deals with the Civil War, I’m not sure if it could be classified as a war film, seeing as The General is completely uninterested in the larger context of and politics behind the war. The hero may be a Confederate, but unlike something such as Gone with the Wind, the Union army is not made out to be treacherous and the Southern cause is not celebrated; the hero Johnnie Gray’s individual ingenuity and bravery is. The genre which may be the best fit for The General could be that of action-adventure, but once again, this disregards the rest of the elements of the story.
So what makes this film great if it is not “the funniest” movie ever made? The General can be hard for some to appreciate for one reason: the film is understatement incarnate. Its visual beauty is understated, the comedy is understated, the acting is understated, heck, even that famous shot of the Texas crashing into the lake during the climax of the film, hailed as the most expensive shot of the silent era, is underplayed. And yet, it is also awe-inspiring. In The General, Keaton plays with the biggest canvas he was ever given, doing risky stunts on a moving engine, clowning during battle sequences, and creating moments so thrilling because you know it was all real and not in front of a rear-projected image.
When I think of The General, I think of smoking billowing from the mouth of a cannon or the top of an old-fashioned engine, light filtering through the Oregon foliage as Johnnie and his lady love awake in the woods, and Johnnie struggling to chop wood as his engine rushes past the retreating Confederate army. Everything is shot on location and the historical elements coordinated with an aim for accuracy. This quality gives The General a naturalistic feel, one often compared to Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war. There’s no excess in the imagery, no desire to sear your eyes with visual splendor.
There’s also no beating around the bush in terms of story. The General is the most economical of narratives; Keaton introduces us to Johnnie, shows us what and who he cares about, and establishes his problems in the first fifteen minutes. There’s not an ounce of fat upon the plot, no extraneous scenes. Every gag and set piece serves to further the chase, working together like a well-oiled machine.
A great deal of the comedy comes from Buster’s reactions. Erroneously dubbed the Great Stone Face, Keaton is the master of expression, communicating emotions and thought through the most minute shifts of muscle or eyebrow in his face. One of my favorite moments is when Johnnie, after sneaking Annabelle in a sack onto a boxcar, sees other soldiers loading heavy-looking boxes and barrels on top of her. He just has this look which encapsulates the phrase, “aw crap,” but without popping his eyes or dropping his jaw.
Johnnie Gray stands apart from Keaton’s other character types, the wealthy milquetoast or the lovesick and unworldly young man: he comes off as more of an adult due to having a job at which he excels and not excessively mooning over Annabelle, maturely (if passively) handling her rejection of him. He does have his clumsy moments and is often plagued by having a sort of tunnel vision in regards to what he’s doing, but in the end, Johnnie is a dashing and resourceful hero: brave, handsome, and intelligent. And despite doing all of these amazing things, Johnnie is still an everyman, both who we are and who we would wish to be. When Keaton goes back to playing lovesick young men trying to make good in College and Steamboat Bill Jr, it feels almost like a step back after the maturity of Johnnie.
That’s another word which describes this film: mature. In many ways, this is like a culmination of Keaton’s particular brand of artistry and attitude toward feature film storytelling. No surrealism or cartoonish physics. No playing for pathos. The comedy and the drama are fused together, inseparable, keeping the audience invested and grounded in this world and making the people inhabiting this story more human and relate-able. Critic Imogen Sara Smith was correct when she asserted that The General is the “most serious comedy ever made.”
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: The General was ahead of its time and it’s ahead of ours. Can you see something like this coming out of today’s Hollywood? They’d beg for more explosions, romance, or sidekicks to crowd the movie, destroying the economy and intelligence. I’m sure there will always be people who use the dreaded O-word in regards to this movie, but if it left you cold upon initial viewing, I would urge you to give it another chance and view it with fresh eyes. It is the sort of film which rewards multiple sittings, revealing layers of greatness and beauty with continued exposure. I have seen it several times in the five years since I first saw it and I still notice new things every time I pop the Blu-ray in. No, it’s not a laugh riot; it’s defies all classification and offers viewers something different and fresh, even close to 90 years later. It has come to be my favorite movie, encapsulating all I love about both Buster Keaton and the silent era’s mode of storytelling. Thrilling, funny, and epic, it is not to be missed.