The General ★★★★★

If nothing else, The General gave me an excuse to go do some research on how it was filmed, which I would advise anyone to do. Buster Keaton was a complete fucking madman bent on making the craziest films possible. He's like some sort of avatar for the Vaudevillian impulse to destroy oneself in the service of entertainment, and fortunately for us his most insane work was committed to film. Even more fortunately for us the footage wasn't all burned up in some stunt of his from a later production.

As with a number of his other films, there are numerous occasions in The General where Keaton could have easily killed himself. He constantly clambers up, over, around and in front of moving trains for almost the entire film, and there are countless occasions where locomotives are derailing or threatening to be derailed. He goofs around in between coupling and uncoupling train cars, and all of this while fucking around with gunpowder. There's a scene where he has to prevent his train from derailing by snatching up a railroad tie as the engine is moving, and then caber-tossing it onto another tie at the last moment, hitting it in just the right spot so that it flips off of the track. That wasn't a trick of the camera, that was just Buster Keaton trusting in his ability to not die and really making a perfectly timed toss. Memorable just for the achievement of not being an old-timey version of Faces of Death.

All of this tweaking of Death's nose got Keaton a film that was scorned by contemporary critics and killed his independence in making films. One of the great injustices in Hollywood history. The General is a casualty of audience expectations, because while the film has plenty of comedic moments, it is more an action movie than a comedy. And as an action movie it's incredible. Light years ahead of its time and involving a degree of risk, both physical and financial, that we'll never see again outside of full-scale warfare. Once things get going, the action is almost non-stop, consisting of a train chase in which the "gags" are ever-more elaborate attempts at sabotage, culminating in a breathtaking bridge collapse. The great irony is that the biggest laugh in the film doesn't belong to Keaton, but instead to the nonplussed Union officer watching a train engine fall into a river after impatiently telling the operator to just go ahead and cross. And then a full-scale battle scene ensues involving multiple cannon and a fucking dam bursting. This film is apeshit.

The temptation is to compare this to the modern era of Bay-splosions and Tom Cruise occasionally threatening to cripple himself. But there is no comparison at all. This film is unlike almost anything else made in terms of what was invested into it, and even a passing familiarity with this giant offering to the gods holding sway over mortality will provide the proper context in which to consider it.

Herb liked this review