Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies Presents:
The General (1927)
I don’t try to hide the fact that The General is my favorite movie. It is a classic in every sense of the word – a groundbreaking film for its time that has weathered eighty-one years and remained relevant. Buster Keaton achieves an exhausting amount of tasks for this movie – creating intense action, a hapless romance, and the glory of victory. And he does it all without sound.
Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is a loser. He’s not fit for the Confederate army, and he’s certainly not suitable for the beautiful Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) because he’s thought a coward. When a cargo train, The General, is hijacked right from under the nose of the Rebel Army, and Johnny and Annabelle with it, he takes it upon himself to head deep into enemy territory to steal Union Army tactics and bring The General back down across the Mason-Dixon. (Note: In the original post, I referred to the train as The Texas – that is the train Buster pursues the Union forces with, not the one that was stolen. Thanks to FSR reader Joel for pointing out the error.)
For the cluttered, ritalin-nurtured adrenaline junkies of today, The General‘s action may not be enough for you, but for most viewers, it’s a genuine thrill. There are few explosions, and the ones that do exist are little more than puffs of smoke. The gun fire would probably sound like a toy pop-gun if the technology had existed at the time to capture live sound. So what makes it thrilling? Keaton puts his own body into harm’s way without stunt actors of safety nets. When he’s jumping off bridges, running along the top of train cars or falling all over himself, it’s truly dangerous. In several stunts where Keaton jumps and dives on the outside of the train, a false calculation could have thrown him to his death. Even more impressive than the level of bodily harm, though, is the graceful way that he handles it all. He never seems to break a sweat or a smile while doing the most complicated of physical feats.
While the movie has its comedic moments – and even the stunts are funny in that old vaudevillian way – it is, at its core, about a disparaged man who must risk his own life to prove his worth and dedication to the woman he loves. There’s a true human struggle there, and that’s what makes it so fulfilling.
I’d talk about the other actors, but it really is a one-man show. Everyone else plays a static role whether its the beautiful maiden or the domineering army officer. For nearly the entire running time, Keaton owns the screen.
But another major player is the music. Based on themes from old Dixieland music, the score helps create the mood for the movie. It flows easily between the sweet lovelorn and the epic confrontation. For those who revel in the film scores of today, The General puts that thematic responsibility, that role that music plays in film front and center and shines a bright spotlight on it.
There’s also little more to the story than Keaton’s stunt gags, but they’re jaw-dropping and do an incredible job of furthering the story along. Plus, at a time when actors were transitioning to this newfangled medium called moving pictures, Keaton was introducing an entirely new concept to the world. Most filmmakers took their cues from plays and vaudeville acts, but Keaton (who also co-directed the film) took his deadpan gymnastic skill to the extreme, becoming one of the world’s first action stars.
The entire story ends with a calamitous trainwreck and bridge collapse, a major cinematic undertaking at the time. Of course, as you may have guessed, Johnnie proves his bravery, and Annabelle is his for the kissing. Cue the old-timey “The End” card.
If you love movies, The General is a must-see. Ranked in the Top Twenty on the AFI list, it is an incredible achievement, probably Keaton’s most dangerous film, that still has the ability to amaze in a time where the screen is inundated with multi-million dollar explostions and CGI.
You’ll dig it if you liked…
Any Jackie Chan movie
The Great Locomotive Chase
Back to the Future III