Stars: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
Directors: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
Oscar History: Predated the Academy Awards
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars
Oh, the classics, in particular the Silent Era classics, have so much iconography in them the first time you catch the movie you can't help but feel like you've already seen the flick, and this is certainly true of The General. The film, considered by many to be the greatest triumph of Buster Keaton's storied career, is a wonderful combination of incredible special effects (nothing can quite compare with the Silent Era in terms of "they actually did that!" awe) and great action-adventure sequences. While the film lacks the obvious interest that something like Sherlock Jr. has for me, as a movie fan, I have to admit that I left The General even more enraptured in this particular picture and it is likely to become my favorite Keaton film-a wonderfully spry, occasionally heartfelt look at one man's quest to find relevance and win his lady's respect.
(Spoiler Alert) There really isn't a large need, quite frankly, for the spoiler alert here as this is a story as old as the movies itself and you know where it's headed pretty much from the beginning. We have Johnnie (Keaton), a bumbling engineer who is in love with a girl named Annabelle (Mack). We are on the eve of the Civil War, and after an attack on Fort Sumter, all of the young men of the village, including Johnnie, rush off to enlist. Small caveat here-every single Civil War film I've ever seen, almost all of which are about the South for the record which I've always found quite strange considering they, well, lost, has every eligible young man in the village rushing off to war. There had to have been at least one guy who thought "well, maybe I'll wait a week or two to see if this thing is really happening"-right? Where is that guy's movie?
Anyway, Johnnie is rejected because it is thought that as a train engineer, he's more valuable for the Confederacy in his current job than in the army. Due to a misunderstanding, Annabelle thinks Johnnie didn't sign up because he got rejected, but because he was a coward and refuses to speak to him again until he is in uniform. The film unfolds with Johnnie eventually stopping an impending attack by the Union army and saving the day for the confederacy, finally being accepted into the army and winning Annabelle's love and respect.
The film's middle is of course where it gains its legend, particularly the incredible action set-pieces involving the General (which is the name for Johnnie's locomotive). The film had the most expensive and elaborate stunt of the entire Silent Era in the back-half of the movie (and if you've seen a DW Griffith film, you know this is saying something), and it's unbelievable to think of how this happened. You can see it here and I mandate you check it out, but it's the Texas (a locomotive) crashing into an actual river. This is one of those "you only get one take" sorts of situations, something I'd have to think would never get approved in today's film budgets, and the engine itself actually stayed in the river until the 1940's when it was eventually cleaned up. The film is filled with these sorts of classic sequences, chase scenes and gigantic shots of the trains going after each other, and while the comedy is really funny and I laughed-out-loud quite a few times, it's these technical pieces that really had me flummoxed and wowed. Frequently I hate when people say "they don't make them like they used to," but this is true here. We wouldn't want a train crashing into an actual river (we have enough environmental issues these days to not go adding pollution to the mix), but it's still thrilling and insane to watch it actually happen in these pre-CGI films.
That being said, I was a big fan and see the appeal here-do you? Are you a fan of this, the penultimate film on the AFI list that I haven't seen (the last to go is unfortunately not on DVD but I'm looking into it for the next couple of weeks)? Where does it rank compared to Sherlock Jr? Share your thoughts below in the comments!