Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin, are the contemporary faces of film comedy from the silent era. Whilst Chaplin was probably more renowned during their actual careers, if anything Keaton’s reputation and Filmography is probably more renowned today. In a career of almost universally loved features, The General (1926) is generally considered his greatest work.
The film is a phenomenal one, partly because it works on a bunch of levels and functions as an example of multiple genres. This is in my view probably the best comedy in history. Add to that the fact that it is also a wonderful love story, action film, war film and example of stuntwork and you can see why it is so loved. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who attempts to enlist for the South during the Civil War. His application is rejected on the grounds that his work as an engineer is more important to the cause. His beloved Annabelle however does not know the reasons behind his rejection and accuses him of cowardice, no longer wanting anything to do with him. Fast forward a year and the devious North have hatched a plot to steal a train from the South and utilise it to blow up their supply routes. The train they happen to steal is being driven by Johnnie and also has Marion accidently stowed away.
What follows is surely the greatest chase sequence in all of cinema, lasting a good half an hour. The whole thing is helter skelter and Keaton also somehow manages to give proceedings a simultaneous feeling of both danger and fun. A sequence where our hero is actually sitting on the front of his locomotive balancing large pieces of wood perhaps the most iconic example. Keaton delivers plenty of these iconic images actually, such as him sitting on the wheel of the train as it moves and the huge set piece involving a train and a burning bridge toward the end of the film. The director/star must have been quite the athlete in his day, because the stunts that he pulls off will leave your jaw dropping. It doesn’t hurt that the actor is always willing to put his body (and probably his life) on the line, over and over. A totally fearless man, who knows how he would survive in today’s Hollywood, filled with insurance policies and stuntmen. On a comedic level, one of the reasons that the film succeeds so spectacularly is because Keaton employs a wide array of techniques to garner laughs – from typically over the top slapstick to much subtler, clever methods. The score on the version I watched (which is also the one I am giving away this week), composed by Joe Hisaishi in 2001, is fantastic and really enhances the viewing of the film. As does the fact that the print is a wonderfully sharp one. It is great to see older films being restored and presented in this way.
To put it bluntly, The General is a masterpiece. It is one of my top 5 favourite films of all time and on many days it would be my number 1. If you haven’t seen it, then I highly urge you to seek it out. I think it is probably the most charming film I have ever seen and also such a brilliant example of the comedy genre.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
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