Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
The trap in evaluating The General within the context of this series - or, indeed, as any kind of modern cinephile - is focusing exclusively on the story behind the making of the film and its place in film history. This, admittedly, feels counter to the spirit of this series. The whole point of this journey - besides filling in my own blind spots - is to place these films in a historical canon of some sort.
Tilt that approach too far, though, and you run the risk of reducing The General to something less than a film that should stand on its own merits. This feels a particular risk with silent films, and especially with this one as opposed to the other I’ve covered to date. It is not simply some signpost. It did not come in to existence merely to further the craft. It must be encountered on its own terms. Anything less, and you risk missing the actual, literal picture itself.
And, yes, the first impression you’ll have of The General as a modern viewer is that it is remarkably ambitious for one that was first released in 1926. That decade in film history conjures up visions of intertitle cards, melodramatic piano music and heavily made up damsels in distress fawning toward the upper right or upper left corner of the screen. It certainly doesn't conjure up a pseudo-car chase and a special effects budget that leaves modern machinery in pieces.
There are pretty much all of those traditional silent film things in The General. But not at nearly the rate you’d expect. Buster Keaton, the director and star of the film, was known for maniacally limiting the number of intertitles used in his film. He and Charlie Chaplin apparently competed to see who could tell their stories with fewer. Beyond that, though, Keaton dreamt big in adapting The Great Locomotive Chase, the true story of a civilian-led Civil War raid on a strip of railroad in Tennessee and Georgia. Keaton got three real trains for his version of the story. He bounced from the engine’s furnace to the cowcatcher to the trailing cars of those trains - risking his own physical safety in the process - to make the locomotive chase feel legitimately authentic. He simulated lightning strikes and grizzly bear attacks. He committed to this film in every way he could.
It feels passe to even mention it now. Don’t we lampoon Michael Bay for the same sort of thing these days? But especially relative to someone like Bay, it’s hard to ignore the level of Keaton’s sacrifice. The $750,000 budget - massive by the standards of the day - essentially cost Keaton his autonomy as a filmmaker. The authenticity in the stunts left him unconscious on set on at least one occasion and resulted in at least one other lawsuit from another of the players. The literal wreckage of one of the three trains sat in an Oregon riverbed for decades after the film’s climactic shot, becoming a tourist attraction in the years after shooting wrapped.
In other words, Keaton had it all on the line. To some degree, he lost, and lost big. At least in the business and career sense, The General broke Keaton. What a price to pay.
And yet, it feels like if you could ask Keaton if it was worth it, he’d say yes unequivocally. We’re still here talking about The General. It remains the kind of film people like me are embarrassed to say they haven’t seen.
And it is that way mostly because of the gags. The gags are what Keaton was really committed to, not just in this film but really across his work. Indeed, as Karina Longworth has educated me, Keaton the auteur rarely had much of an idea what direction his films would take. There was an idea of how it would begin and idea of how it would end, and there was the real magic in between those two points.
In The General, the spontaneity of Keaton the comedian - deadpan as always - was married with the power and physicality of locomotion. There is “The Great Stone Face” sitting on the wheels of the train, looking glum as ever, as the engine begins to chug-chug-chug. There is him pumping a rail car down the track, derailing, and then somehow ending up on a pennyfarthing. There is the first great chase, with an iconic shot of Keaton moving rail ties in front of a train from the train's cowcatcher. And there is the second, with him walking all over his love, pitching firewood in to and then out of the furnace, dodging cannonballs and so forth. There is a furious pace to everything. There is an inescapable, wonderful sense that anything can happen.
This is why we still care about The General. Yes, it - ahem - laid track for successors in both action and comedy. That feels like its most significant quality, perhaps because it’s hard to agree now with Orson Welles’ sentiment that this is greatest comedy of all-time.
But it only really matters because it comes with Keaton’s signature gags. Funniest film of all-time or not, they are still enough to elicit a belly laugh, even after all these years.