DIRECTOR: Clyde Bruckman & Buster Keaton
It has been 90 years since Buster Keaton’s classic failed critically, at the box office, as well as being instrumental in stripping Keaton of his creative control over his movies. The General has since become recognised as not only a silent comedic masterpiece, but a directorial and creative one too.
And with good reason. The action comedy, often dismissed as just a slapstick comedy of the silent era, is actually heavily routed in fact. The core story is that of the Great Locomotive Chase which took place in 1862, in which Union soldiers stole a train, the “General”, with plans to destroy the railroad and communication links by burning bridges and severing telegraph lines.
In real life, they managed to cut the lines but failed to burn any bridges before the train ran out of fuel and the Union soldiers where captured, with many of them being executed as spies, but not after being pursued by Confederate troops who commandeered another Locomotive, the “Texas”.
This is in principle what happens through the course of the this film, with one major exception. The addition of a fictional driver of the General and his lover, Keaton and Marion Mack, the later is accidentally taken hostage by the Yankees when they steal the train. The film focuses more on the comedic and death-defying stunt-work of Keaton as he catches up with stolen engine and eventually thwart the Union soldiers in epic and exiting style.
There is no doubt that the direction, stunt work and photography are bold, ambitious and with few modifications, would hold up today. The plotting and familiar and has clearly inspired many of the modern action adventures of the past 40 years, most obviously the finale of Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013), with several trains chasing each other along the railroads.
The film takes a pause overnight half way through which is the only time that the film drags but other than that, this is a well executed, groundbreaking and inspirational film, a comedy which is funny and a story which has rarely been told on film since, with the 1950’s Disney film, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), which to be honest, I have never seen nor really heard much about, to mention.
Highly recommended and with a brief 75 minute running time, it is not a difficult watch for a modern audience who may feel put of by a silent movie.