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‘The General’: Buster Keaton’s Silent Superhero Movie

The General
By  · Published on September 25th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they celebrate Buster Keaton as a superhero who is faster with his locomotive.

In the #34 (tied) movie on the list, the union army steals a supply train with a damsel on board, and Johnnie Gray

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: I love me a Buster Keaton movie. There’s nothing quite like his incredible human acrobatics and larger-than-life choreography. So it came to no surprise to me that I thoroughly enjoyed The General, frequently hailed as his masterpiece, which I saw here for the first time.

But since I know this is your favorite movie, I want to toss the ball to you: why is this not only Keaton’s best film, but one of the best of all time?

Scott: It’s been my favorite movie for about ten years not only because it’s insanely entertaining, but because it embodies all of cinema’s possibilities. It’s an adventure, a romance, a thriller. There are big set pieces and small character moments. There’s even experimental camera work. There’s comedy, redemption, dramatic irony, amazing stunt work. It’s got everything (except for, you know, people talking).

Landon: Which, of course, means there are no talking horses or dogs. Strike one for Keaton.

Scott: Well, it’s in the public domain, so we can always add a scene with a dog that plays water polo or something.

Landon: Or cats boxing.

Scott: The Silent Film Era really was the apex of culture.
Landon: I like your point that it embodies all of cinema’s possibilities except sync dialogue. For one, it points to some of the conversations that were happening at the dusk of the silent era that The General was released, namely skepticism about what sound will do to cinema. And here’s The General, 30 years into this medium, still finding incredible things to do simply with the act of placing a camera in front of an event. With sound films’ focus on dialogue instead of spectacle, it makes you wonder how films may have looked different if the silent era went on for 10 or 20 more years, when there were still possibilities this incredible to be realized.

Scott: Right, and the key there is that in order to make up for lacking sound (especially for a modern sound-addicted audience), the event you place in front of the camera has to be extraordinary.

What’s funny is that if you mute some recent blockbuster action sequences, they don’t play nearly as impressively – and some are not even as jaw-dropping as 90-year-old footage of one man pressed to the front of a moving train kicking ties out of the way to avoid derailing.

Just for fun – play the new train fight from The Wolverine without sound and see what gets lost in intensity.

Landon: And a large part of that has to with with the reality of the situation. This is actually putting the camera in front of an event, in front of something Keaton did with his own body and not that of a stunt double or in front of a blue screen. CGI and other special effects can age badly, but placing a real, extraordinary staged event in front of a camera is something that can be timeless.

Even with special effects during the silent era, like in Meilies’s films, the appeal was what was placed in front of the camera, not what was added subsequently

Scott: Although there’s a great argument to be made for advances in actor/stunt person safety. Still, it’s one of the things Keaton was special. He did incredible, awe-inspiring physical feats.

Landon: So Keaton’s bumbling hero is like Wolverine, or perhaps even better without hyper-advanced body-reconstituting cells?

Scott: Wow, yes. Great description. There are two layers there (because we can’t watch movies in a vacuum). One, we know that everything Hugh Jackman is doing is CGIed while Keaton was running around all over an active train trying constantly not to die.

Two, Wolverine’s powers mitigate the stakes (although the movie changes that plot-wise), while Keaton is just some everyman who seems to be partially Mr. Magoo-ing his way through eye-popping stunts.

He pushes the boundaries, so if the non-mutated Batman is a superhero, Johnnie Gray definitely is.

Landon: That’s perhaps Keaton’s greatest talent as an actor: he convincingly plays incompetent underdog while doing extraordinary, superhuman things.

The Little Tramp who could fly.

Scott: Charlie Chaplin with gamma radiation.

Here’s where I have to give due respect to Harold Lloyd as well.

Landon: For climbing a NYC building Spider-man style?

Scott: Bingo. Safety Last came out 3 years before The General and was a giant hit where Keaton’s masterpiece wasn’t. So there’s a question of why The General endured in a way that Lloyd’s clock-hanging climb didn’t.

Landon: One answer to that question has to do with Lloyd’s estate. We’re only just now seeing some of his films re-emerge, whereas both Chaplin and Keaton have had devoted retrospectives in the past few decades. But that, of course, doesn’t answer the question as to why The General was appreciated later, much less how it made its way in front of a Chaplin movie on this list.

What I love about Chaplin is his humanism, especially his ability to make himself the butt of the joke without being cheap about it. What I admire about Lloyd is his visual wit; he has subtle expressions no silent-era comedian can compete against. But Keaton in nearly all of his films embodies a central American myth: that of the least likely of heroes. Perhaps The General shows this aspect of his work more clearly than any of his other films.

Also, perhaps it initially flopped because it was not one of Keaton’s funniest films, but now we can better appreciate what Keaton was attempting to do in front of the camera beyond “Make me laugh, dammit!”

Scott: I wish I had an answer, although I like Roger Ebert’s suggestion that Keaton never mugged or played to the gag. Maybe Chaplin is hindered by an overshadowing personality. People remember and love City Lights and Modern Times and Springtime for The Great Dictator, but more than those they remember The Tramp. An iconic figure looming over his individual entries.

I’d also argue that Safety Last doesn’t hold up as well as The General, considering that most people solely remember it for its climax. Meanwhile, The General is the embodiment of cutting to the chase. It’s nearly all chase. All climax.

Landon: And there’s something it seems to capture about the silent era when looked at in retrospect. So much of silent cinema was about trains and other forms of travel – that was a spectacle of the turn of the century. With The Great Train Robbery and the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at a Station, one can argue that cinema began with the representation of trains (A Trip to the Moon was also about a form of travel).

Depicting the locomotive probably seemed passe by the time of The General, especially considering that it’s a period piece, but it provides an appropriate end cap to the possibilities of silent cinema as realized through the metaphor of travel: it’s about manipulating space and time, about moving forward with technology, about being taken somewhere you’ve never been before.

Of course, there were still several great silents after The General, but it seems like an appropriate end cap to the possibilities of that era. The last great, truly silent Hollywood film.

Scott: I have no way to follow up that kind of poetry, but I will suggest that staging the movie on a train was another accomplishment itself – that Keaton and the team could invent so many gags and pratfalls in a limited space with few prop elements is still really astounding.

Several of them are really harmless – like the Union soldiers getting blasted in the face by water from a tower pipe, dealing with the bent railings, and comically throwing away firewood – but they all add up (alongside the truly mortal ones) to them burning everything down and dropping a train into a river.

And all without using CGI.

Landon: No way. You can’t convince me that Buster Keaton’s giant eyeballs are real.

Scott: That may have been make-up.

Overall, I wonder if it was just ahead of its time. The last great American silent film (which makes it spring to mind when we think about that era), but also a transition film that has proven to appeal to later audiences more than those of the 1920s.

Landon: True. I think the film reveled in the old too much for audiences interested in something new. Now it seems unimaginable that anyone would yawn at Keaton’s stunts, but in retrospect, it makes for an exemplary work of its time, even if it was rejected by that time.

Scott: My favorite response was from the Los Angeles Times, where the reviewer complained that the movie dragged because of the chase sequence. And I wonder – if over half of your runtime is a chase sequence, shouldn’t the audience get that that’s the point?

Landon: Haha, and we think today’s audiences have an attention deficit problem. I wonder what that critic would think of The Wolverine.

Scott: Sheer terror, Landon.

He’d also wonder where all the dialogue was coming from.

Next Time: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

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