tue 31/03/2020

The General (1926) | reviews, news & interviews

The General (1926)

The General (1926)

Why Buster Keaton's loco-loving railroad engineer leaves the cinema's spandexed superheroes in the dust

The big sleeper: Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) prepares to clear the track up aheadUnited Artists

It's no discredit to Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that they didn't venture into outer space when filming Gravity – setting aside other considerations, the insurance costs would have been prohibitive.

It's no discredit to Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that they didn't venture into outer space when filming Gravity – setting aside other considerations, the insurance costs would have been prohibitive. There is little doubt, however, that had Buster Keaton begun his film acting career in 1987 (instead of 1917) and cast himself as an astronaut who must dodge a blizzard of high-speed debris and become unmoored while spacewalking, he would have insisted on performing such stunts himself high above Earth, having first won his NASA badge. Yes, Keaton would have drifted off into the void, reasonably confident that he'd make it back to the rest of the crew for the next set-up.

The Great Stone Face performed some of his riskiest stunts when he and his frequent collaborator Clyde Bruckman made the silent comedy masterpiece The General (1926), the 4K digital restoration of which opens this week in tandem with the BFI Southbank season "Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today" (running until February 26). Based on a Civil War incident that occurred in Georgia in April 1862, it stars Keaton as the Southern railroad engineer Johnnie Gray, who must retrieve his eponymous locomotive after it's hijacked by Union raiders bent on sabotaging the Western and Atlantic Railroad ahead of their army's advance toward Chattanooga.

They also also seize his estranged girlfriend, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), a passenger on the train seeking her wounded father. Traveling on a hand-car, a penny-farthing, and a purloined loco, Johnnie – oblivious of the armies surging past him – lands deep in enemy territory. Floundering around in the rain after dark, he stumbles on the house where Annabelle is held prisoner and where he overhears Union generals secretly planning the following day's attack.

Buster Keaton - risk-takerEarlier in the film, Johnnie had been rejected by Confederate recruiters and subsequently by Annabelle, who mistakenly thought him a coward. He is shown sitting forlornly on the steel rod that connects the General's wheels. When his fireman, not knowing he's there, starts to drive the loco to the roundhouse, Keaton eventually notices that he's rotating with the mechanism. The gag looks innocuous compared with the stunt in Steamboat Bill. Jr. (1928) that required Keaton to position himself so that an open upstairs window set in the two-ton façade of a house crashing to the ground would drop safely over him. (He survived because of the two-inch margin on each side of the aperture.)

In fact, he risked death in both cases: had the engineer controlling the loco released a little more steam, the great wheels could have spun, pulling Keaton into them and mangling him. In another scene, Johnnie effortlessly runs and leaps from a moving railroad car onto a tender and then the cab. Perched on a cowcatcher with a wooden sleeper (or cross-tie) in his arms, he miraculously prevents a derailment with a fraction of a second to spare. This trick has to be seen to be believed.

Such near-escapes (in The General and throughout Keaton's work as an actor-director) never aggrandize his humble persona, which cannot be said of the feats accomplished by the movie comic-book heroes of the last quarter of a century. Although the spandex-attired often come packaged with neuroses contrived to balance their self-righteousness and superhuman skills, they are self-evidently predestined to triumph. It never seems that way with Keaton's character, less a neurotic than an unassuming nonentity who overcomes insurmountable hazards with a mix of daring, surprising pragmatism (given that he is an inveterate dreamer), the spontaneous application of the laws of physics, and luck. He is not hapless but often seems so. He is human; Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk et al are not.

In The General, nearly every problem Johnnie solves, gymnastically or mechanically, is followed by a mishap or accident that perplexes him. After overloading the barrel of a cannon mounted on a trolley pulled by the loco he is driving, he is dismayed when it tilts downwards to point at his tender (and his tender self; Keaton pictured with the disobedient weapon above). He is mystified when a wagon he has diverted onto a siding re-appears on the track ahead. He is not without feeling but, suspecting that his failures will succeed his successes with monotonous regularity, he knows that indulging despair or exultation is futile. A stoic who accepts mankind is at the mercy of naughty gods, all he can do is muster his resources – and hope. 

Keaton and Marion MackOrson Welles, a fervent admirer of Keaton, famously said that the RKO studio was "the biggest electric train set any boy ever had." Keaton's "biggest train set" was the narrow-gauge rail network he filmed in and around Oregon's lumber camps, the tracks of the original Georgia locations having been updated to standard gauge, unsuitable for Civil War trains. He also chose Oregon because the Georgia scenery was "terrible," he told the film historian Kevin Brownlow. Authenticity was key to his conception. Welles and the critic David Robinson have observed how close in spirit The General is to the Civil War photography of Matthew Brady. Robinson has noted that "Keaton's own clothes – even to the coarse textures of the woolen cloth of his calling suit – are straight out of a daguerreotype. So, as James Agee pointed out, was his face." John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951) is the only Civil War film that can match The General for the verisimilitude of its fabrics and physiognomies.

Not all the comedy proceeds from Johnnie's chase after his beloved loco and his ensuing flight in it. On the return journey, Annabelle joins him in the cab (Keaton and Marian Mack pictured above). She proves plucky and inventive – even if she decides to sweep the footplate at a crucial moment and discards a much-needed piece of firewood because it has a knot-hole. In a forest at night, a bear delightfully makes its presence felt. Mechanical, domestic, martial, or ursine, the gags flow seamlessly. They didn't split viewers' sides in 1926 – so Keaton's pet project failed at the box office – and are now more likely to elicit smiles than any other response. Yet how beautiful The General is, how mesmerizing its motion, and how flawlessly it occupies not only its dramatic terrain of lakes, bridges, and wooded valleys but also the rarified cinematic space that coexists with Keaton's serene indifference.

He overcomes insurmountable hazards with a mix of daring, pragmatism, physics, and luck

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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