Out of all the silent era comedians, Buster Keaton is notable for his lavishly large set pieces and there is perhaps no better example of this then 1926’s The General. With the restrictions of silent era technology, most humor of the time was slapstick, because only a visual was required. Most of the time slapstick is relatively simplistic in its presentation and sophistication; however that doesn’t mean you can’t put a good plot around it and that’s exactly what Keaton did. The General is fairly simplistic. Obviously. The acting, production, etc… isn’t the best. Obviously. But! Keaton does his finest to stretch the limitations of the time to their max.
Keaton’s protagonist is a breath of fresh air from the Chaplin copies that perforated this era; he’s kind, brave, but still clumsy. Keaton’s mugging to the camera may be generic by the times standards, but on occasion his reactions to all the crazy shit going on around him is priceless.
The movie progresses through a civil war landscape (on the southern side nonetheless) with the danger of war always present. This plays back into the plot, but what it really achieves is a sense of tension. The people around Keaton are willing to kill him and this leads to genuine moments where you wonder how he’s going to pull this off and stay alive. The only problem is that when Keaton isn’t on screen, this war backdrop proves immensely boring, but if you’re willing to wait just a little bit longer Keaton will pop back up just in time to provide a few smirks.
This movie is most likely not going to get you to laugh out loud, but chuckles and smirks will abound. The choreography of many of the slapstick scenes is truly astonishing, because they are so sophisticated compared to the rest of the movie. Mock silent film all you want, they had slapstick down to a fucking science. The first act is set piece after set piece and this really is astonishing, not only does it convince you of the Keaton’s comedic genius, but also his general filmmaking genius, since it truly feels like a train chase. Now to be fair this could also be the work of his co-director Clyde Bruckman, but alas we’ll never know.
The General is not your average slapstick movie. This one is big. It’s grand not only in price but scale. The ending train scene is a great example of this, as well as the other primitive effects. This movie was a remarkable achievement at the time and still stands as a classic to this day. If you want to dip your toes into silent film, this is a great way to start and if you’re a silent film fan, then you should have seen this by now.