The General screens this Tuesday, July 27th, at 7pm at Toronto Underground Cinema.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Orson Welles.
There isn't very much that I can say about The General that the late Orson Welles didn't say in that clip. It pretty much sums up everything that I felt about the film as I watched it. The General was a wonderful film that was very sadly looked over upon its initial release in 1927. In fact, it was classified as a monumental failure at the time. Things looked so bleak, in fact, that many exhibitors who booked what Buster Keaton believed to be his greatest film, thought they were going to go broke in the process.
Keaton was sadly always in the shadow of the flashier and more clownish Charlie Chaplin. Oddly enough, despite being the lesser known of the two silent film comedians, Keaton's films have aged much better than those of Charlie Chaplin. I think a lot of this has to do with style and grace. Chaplin was more prone to mugging and running around like a bull in a china shop, while Keaton is more like the precursor to Jackie Chan. Keaton is stone faced and plays everything seriously. There is humor in the situations he finds himself in, but not in the man himself. Keaton plays everything like a man who is only slightly put upon by everything around him. He simply rolls with the punches.
Keaton also performed most of his own stunts no matter how dangerous they were. In this film, it really is Keaton jumping from train to train and sitting on the coupling rods between the trains; the latter of which nearly killed him. The General also features one of the greatest train wrecks of all time. It is a scene so spectacular that I can't help but wonder why audiences at the time chose to ignore the film and dismiss it as unfunny drivel.
The General is a pretty simple film, as were most films of the day, but it stands as proof positive that a film does not need to be complex to be a masterpiece. The film simply needs to be well made and entertaining. Keaton plays Johnnie, a railroad conductor aboard his train (nicknamed The General), who finds himself thrust into the middle of the American Civil War when his train is hijacked by Union soldiers with his sweetheart and true love on board. Having been previously rejected by the Confederacy when he tried to enlist (due to the fact that Johnnie was seen as being too valuable as a conductor), Johnnie sees this as his one big chance to not only stand up and fight, but to show his girlfriend that he isn't a coward.
On a technical level, The General might be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the silent era. One thing that tends to go overlooked, however, when talking about silent films is plotting and structure, and The General has an amazingly well thought out plot. There are brief side missions and disruptions for both Johnnie and the Union army that compound matters and help to reinforce the story. Every reaction that Keaton plans out for Johnnie is well thought out, and every stunt acts not only as a spectacle, but as a plot device designed to move the film forward.
I think The General might very well be the greatest achievement, not only of Keaton's career, but of the silent film era in general. It is without a doubt awe inspiring when one thinks of the work that went into making it and it is also one of the most entertaining films ever made. While coming by an actual print of the film would be next to impossible (especially since many projectors couldn't play a film that old to begin with), I still can't wait to see it in a dark theater. Even for a moment and even in a more modernized theater, it can still have the power to take you back in time.