The General

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(1926, directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton)

- inducted 2016 –

The General is the ultimate Keaton film the way that City Lights is the ultimate Chaplin film. It is not my favorite Keaton film- for my money Steamboat Bill Jr. is funnier and Sherlock Jr. a better display for the strain of neurotic precision that makes Keaton one of my three favorite filmmakers. But The General does not merely make use of its lead's skills; it embodies them. If Keaton's two most distinctive traits as a performer are his startling athleticism and his Zen detachment; and if the central image of Keaton's oeuvre is his use of said startling athleticism to overcome obstacles that bear down on him with the full weight of fate (the boulders in Seven Chances, the obstacle courses at the climaxes of College and Sherlock Jr., the stampede of cattle in Go West), then The General features nothing but Keaton escaping forces bearing down on him with only his persistence and stoicism. These forces take both the form of a giant, often out of control locomotive, and of history itself.

“It's in that last bit that we might understand why Keaton still plays to a comparatively large audience, while other silent comedians are ever increasingly consigned to the classroom, if anywhere. Comparing Keaton to his contemporaries is reductive both to Keaton and his contemporaries, but it's impossible not to. I am not the first, nor the first thousandth, to note that the key difference between Keaton and his rivals is attitude, that vaunted Stone Face. While someone like Harold Lloyd would react to his predicaments with telegraphed despair and alarm, Keaton takes his disasters in stride no matter how apocalyptic. And while Chaplin would mug for the pathos and politics, Keaton's emotions and politics were famously muted. This is part of the reason why The General works; for a film whose hero is a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate and whose villains are dastardly Blue Bellied Saboteurs, The General feels almost shockingly apolitical.

“This is perhaps best exemplified in the famous sequence where the confederate army retreats and the union army advances past the oblivious Keaton's locomotive. Let the war go on in the background- Keaton's just concerned with chopping wood. Chaplin is trying to make a statement; Keaton is just trying to get by. The Civil War is an inconvenience that makes his professional life unhappy and his romantic life a ruin. He's a simple man caught in history's cross hairs, not A Simple Man Caught In History's Cross Hairs. This conversely makes his films resonate more in a time where most of us feel like we have to run in place just to keep our balance in a world swiftly spinning out of control.

“Of course all of the above is such an epic case of missing the forest for the trees that it nearly drives me to despair. The General is not beloved because of its politics, message, or heaven forefend its modernism, the most dubious of its merits. It's beloved because ninety years after its release, it stands as a model of creativity, narrative efficiency and spectacle. It's beloved because of the sophistication of its filmmaking (watch how perfectly balanced the shot of the forlorn Keaton sitting on the moving pinions of the Locomotive is). It's beloved because in our CGI world the staging of its stunts is even more breathtaking. It's beloved because its extraordinary discipline makes it may be the greatest game of "Cause and Effect" ever filmed (as evidence I submit the sequence that finds Keaton chained to the back of a moving train with a cannon pointed at him). And yes, it's beloved because it is funny. Yet this explanation, on the surface more practical is in truth more ineffable. The General delights because it transports the personality of Keaton, both the director and the performer across time and finds that his ingenuity, creativity, heart and ability are undiminished. That's not just great, that's damn near magical.

“P.S.: Watch it with Joe Hisaishi's score if you are at all able.”

~ Bryce Wilson

Principal cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroon, Charles Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Written by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, with additional contributions by Paul Girard Smith (uncredited)
Adaptation by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith
From the book Daring and Suffering: A History of a Great Railroad Adventure and the memoir The Great Locomotive Chase, both by William Pittenger (uncredited)
Directors of photography: Bert Haines, Dev Jennings
Technical director: Fred Gabourie
Art direction by Fred Gabourie (uncredited)
Set decoration by Harry Roselotte (uncredited)
Film editing by Buster Keaton (uncredited), Sherman Kell (uncredited)
Makeup by J.K. Pitcairn (uncredited), Fred Carlton Ryle (uncredited)
Produced by Buster Keaton (uncredited), Joseph M. Schenck (uncredited)

Duration: 107 minutes
Languages: Silent with English intertitles
Filmed in black and white (Sepiatone)
Sound mix: Silent
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Produced by Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions (A United Artists Production)
Released in USA by United Artists
Premiered in Tokyo, Japan on 31 December 1926
USA release date: 5 February 1927

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1989
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies,” 31 May 1997