On not one, but two separate occasions, I have read or heard the great Orson Welles say that Buster Keaton’s The General was possibly both the greatest movie ever made and his favorite film. Once in the book My Lunches with Orson and another in footage from an old movie TV show where Orson was introducing the films (one of them being The General). This is all coming from the man who people say made the actual greatest movie ever—Citizen Kane. That’s like God saying, “Hey, this Buddha guy ain’t half bad.”
Now, I’m not one to disagree with the savior (Welles that is), but I wouldn’t say this movie is the greatest of all-time. That honor lies with a certain gangster picture. But upon re-watching The General I noticed something about it that was much more different than other Keaton movies. There was a different light to his spark,
as if he knew this would be one of his last major motion pictures. And indeed it was, with him making only one more true Keaton film (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) before having to sign his life away to MGM (a move Keaton called his biggest regret). However, he put everything he had into this movie: his acrobatic talents, his eye for framing, his ability to make literally anything seem both hilarious and jaw-dropping. The result is just that—everything he was and ever will be amplified ten-fold. We are lucky to bask in its silent glow. Take it all in.
The General begins like most of Keaton’s other works. A slightly clumsy, love-struck young man (Johnnie Grey, played by Keaton) rolls into town, this time off to meet the woman he loves to adorn her with simple gifts and awkward silent movie kisses. He then is met with an obstacle that reminds him of his short stature and feebleness and how it makes him less of a man.
Whereas in his other films this obstacle was usually a bigger man
, stopping him from getting the girl, Keaton takes a bit of a twist in this movie with something even larger: the Civil War. He is denied enlisting in the army and is seen as a coward in his lover’s eyes. However, once the beloved train that he works on is stolen, and his girl with it, he must sum up the courage to go after her on a daring adventure all by himself. So here, the story becomes less about winning the girl’s heart and more about saving her, proving not that he can be as strong as bigger men, but that he is naturally braver and bolder than them. In a way this heightened sense emotional action, as compared to his previous films, gave the film a more fantastical sense of old school wonder. Many young men have dreamed of saving the damsel in distress, and Keaton always injected that into his films, probably because he was one of those young men. Here, he bore his deepest desires to be the hero in the best way he knew how.
And what a daring and hilarious adventure it is. Keaton had said before that all he ever wanted to do was make people laugh any way he can. Here, he took that to a whole new level. 90 percent of the movie takes place on actual moving trains so all of the gags and visual elements were done at high speeds with treacherous consequences. But on top of being cinema’s greatest clown, he was also its greatest stuntman. And what
did cinema’s greatest clown/stuntman do in the face of danger? He threw a pie in its face.
Keaton put himself into positions no one else would dare to even think about (thank God for lack of medical insurers in 1927). He bolted across the top of the moving train, fixed stuff on the tracks while the train barreled towards him, hoped from cab to cab—usually all in one, uncut frame. He was like a hippie and the train is everything in the world: Waste not. He used every manner of the train and the tracks to wring out as many laughs as possible, while also making you hold your breath in nervousness. One scene showed him straddling the cow-catcher of the train while holding a giant roadblock, only to notice yet another roadblock fast approaching. What did he do? What could he do?? He took the one he had, throws it at the other with Einstein-level mathematical precision to knock the other away seconds before rolling over it.
Not to mention, all of these stunts are legitimately life-threatening. And by that I don’t mean in the modern sense,
when something is dangerous…if the actor wasn’t in a harness. Just like certain men and badges, Keaton don’t need no stingin’ harness. He did all of these stunts on his own, taking every fall, nick, cut and bruise in stride, even if it could’ve killed him. One moment has a heartbroken Keaton sitting on a coupling rod, and as the train moves forward it moves up and down with gears, him with it, all before going into a narrow tunnel. Had the measurements not been 100 percent on the nose, he could’ve been caught in the gears or smashed into the side of the tunnel. But hey, it was all for the laugh!
This was Keaton’s most ambitious film, and he couldn’t just get that across in wider angles and bigger props. Hence, the danger-level of the stunts needed to be raised for this picture as opposed to his previous outings,
because it is an action-adventure flick at its heart. The stakes are higher and the scope is more epic. Although Keaton had always had a masterful eye for wide camera angles—and letting the jokes play inside long, big shots—here, every single shot brims with depth, and the humor and excitement flow effortlessly within them. There’s so much going on in each shot. It’s a technique that has undoubtedly been taken to heart by future filmmakers, but seeing shots like Keaton’s at work in such old movies makes the style seem so much more magical. It’s like watching film history come to life.
Take the film’s (and one of film history’s) most famous shots, where in one frame an army of Union soldiers is crossing the river,
while the train on a nearby bridge is crossing over, all before the bridge collapses and the train plummets into the water. No secondary screen. No toy model. It was a real train (that was left in the river until it was scrapped for metal during WWII) crashing into the river. Keaton was not only a comedian , he was a also master filmmaker who wanted everything to look as real as possible. The beauty of his movies is that there no room for doubt. You could watch Superman rocket through the air in Man of Steel and go “pssh, that looks fake. This movie is dumb!” Here, with Keaton, there is no room for such foolish thinking.
In the end, Keaton gets the girl and all seems business as usual. But at the same time it doesn’t. I always have to remind myself that this movie was filmed in 1927,
as a comedy. Still, it seems so much grander and imaginative. No filmmaker since has ever put so much work into bringing an audience 75 minutes of pure, unrelenting joy. It’s special and unique unto itself.
So although I cannot agree with Welles’ claim that The General
may be the greatest movie ever made, I can damn well see why he would think so. Watching The General, or any Keaton fare, is like becoming a kid again, where it seems like everything is possible—and in Keaton Land, everything was. He was a master swordsman and everything was his sword, from the largest train to the tiniest rock, using them with such hilarious grace and precision, and then prat falling on his ass for good measure.