MOVIE REVIEW: “The General” is a 1926 silent film, which stars Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr., Seven Chances), Marion Mack (Mary of the Movies, The Carnival Girl), Glen Cavender (Sleuth, Pie-Eyed), and Jim Farley (Westward Ho, Captain January). It was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (Brideless Groom, Our Hospitality). Amidst the beginning of the Civil War, a locomotive engineer named Johnnie Gray (Keaton) calls himself to action when his lover forces him to enlist, or she won’t be with him. Having been turned down due to his crucial occupation to the Southern front, Gray loses his girl but is given a second chance when Union soldiers steal her away along with his locomotive in a secret plan to beat the South.
In my life, I have hardly ever watched any silent films; I made sure to stay away from them. Why? Because they were grainy, in black-and-white, and forced me to read many text boxes to figure out what was going on. It was a chore to my former self, and most times I still struggle with watching them today, causing reviews to never appear for the genre on this site. However, I came across a silent movie that not only changed my mind about the silent era of filmmaking, but also entertained me on a level that modern features do: “The General.” If you’ve never heard of Buster Keaton, just know that he was the comedic genius of the silent film era, aside from Charlie Chaplin. He was known as “The Great Stone Face” for his legendary deadpan expression that he brought to every one of his pictures, solidifying his many characters in a sadistic, yet comedic way. What makes Keaton a genius is how, even now, his comedy works. It holds up because of his devotion to his craft, as well as his approach to the tired style of filmmaking. He does all of his own stunts, and there is little room for special effects, meaning that everything that happens onscreen is real. It blew my mind; you just have to see what Keaton and the cast put themselves through. Trains act as if they are characters, working against man who is just trying to settle their own problems, and it is done brilliantly. I can’t tell you how many dangerous things unfolded on this screen; things I would never do myself. But, that’s what Keaton did. He truly loved filmmaking and giving the audience quality entertainment, and in doing so he changed the silent film era. His stories, using this one as a prime example, have little use of text boxes, relying on physical expression to tell the tale. Of course, there are some things that unfold on the screen that would be nice to have dialogue, but for a good part of “The General” I understood what was going on. We are given a relatable character who is trying to make a name for himself while saving the two things he loves: his locomotive and his lover. The story actually held weight and had character, even though it promoted a sense of comedy or tomfoolery. Sure, those elements are found in this, but that is what lightens the load, making the adventure actually entertaining instead of agonizing. Plot devices were added into this feature which created a sense of dominoes, all connecting and pushing the story along in a neat fashion. There were many things to take interest in this picture, from its whimsical antics to its camera work. Yes, there isn’t much to the angles, but Keaton made sure to place the camera in the heat of the action or expression, providing the audience with the best visual he is trying to convey. Honestly, I really enjoyed this movie. It had some slow parts as well as moments that could’ve been explained further, but then again this feature’s main purpose is to entertain, which it does with flying colors. I may have not laughed as much as Keaton fans would, but I will say that I took joy in watching him fumble around or just being his regular self. He has a screen presence that is truly wonderful. The story of “The General” has been praised by many film critics, including the likes of Orson Welles, and while it is fun, I wouldn’t say it is terrific. It is definitely a silent film worth watching, but I wouldn’t say the plot had many layers. There was enough exposition and conflict to place it above many movies of its time, but this wasn’t near-perfection like it’s promoted. I will say that it has a great redemptive purpose, as it has a very satisfying conclusion that’ll leave you smiling. I sure had a fun time with the cons involved, and I would implore anyone who is sensitive to the silent film age to watch it. The mechanics and work that goes into it is extraordinary, providing an entertaining and lovely flick worth a gander. FINAL SCORE: 87%= Juicy Popcorn
Here is the full film (excuse the poor music choices in the background):