Historic genius at work
Ah, the delicious irony - after struggling for some time with Ted Turner's Gods and Generals, I finally turned it off and started this historic Buster Keaton feature, which is a lot more watchable.
Johnny Grey loves his train (known as "The General" - hence the title), and Annabelle Lee, which is all fine and good, until the civil war begins and he finds himself enlisting with the South to impress her. Only, they refuse him, as he is more valuable running the train. She doesn't believe his story, and refuses to see him "until he is in uniform". Meanwhile, some Northern spies set out to pose as new recruits in order to burn some bridges. Before long, Buster borrows another train and chases after the spies, who have stolen his train, and kidnapped Annabelle Lee.
Most of the action occurs on the rails, where Keaton (I'm giving up referring to him as "Johnny" here) swings himself on top of, through, and around the cars of the train with an unnatural agility. In the north, he manages to accidently infiltrate a strategy session, rescue Annabelle, and then hijacks The General to get word to the forces of the South of what they plan - but the North begins the chases anew, a reversal of the first half of the film, in direction, the roles of chaser and chasee, and in the strategies employed to stop the chase.
Keaton's abilities are, naturally, quite astounding to see, and I could reference one after another of them. I'll just mention one moment that, for some reason, sticks with me. Early in the chase, before he's gotten on any train, he leaps onto a pennyfarthing bicycle (the kind with the huge front wheel and the little back wheel), and pedals off, all in one crisp movement. Not having tried such a thing, it could be easier than I imagine, and perhaps things were set up to make the move easier for him, but still, the balance and concentration in the man impresses me to no end.
To call The General a masterpiece is a recognition of more than just Keaton's athletics, but the filmmaking techniques. It's not easy to follow a train with a film crew, even nowadays, but aside from film quality, there's little meaningful difference between the shot selection in this film and what a modern crew would do.
Also, in terms of coincidences, today came the news of the death of the last civil war veteran widow. Alberta Martin was not alive at the time of the civil war, but she was as close a direct tie to the war that we still had. Back in the early twentieth century, the war still hung heavily over the nation, with the outcome unsatisfactory to so many involved, especially in the south. Is it no surprise that so many meditations on the war are from the losing side, starting with the infamous Birth of a Nation? It's interesting that a comedy of that era doesn't address the issues involved at all, when today any such attempt would require some kind of suggestion that the heroes are not racist, but merely loyal or some such thing. We are such sophisticated moviegoers that settings necessarily suggest moral connotations. Nothing against moral themes in film, but why should they be required? What a joy that in this case, we can witness the comedy genius of Keaton without any of that getting in the way.
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