Tuesday, May 16, 2017

General Displeasure

I'd never before seen a classic film featuring silent movie-era star Buster Keaton, and recently decided that this was a "blindspot" I needed to address. I picked what most people seem to regard as his best movie, The General.

Set during the American Civil War, The General is the story of train engineer Johnnie Gray, who longs to join the army (to impress Annabelle, the woman he fancies). He's rejected when he tries to enlist, as the military deems him to be more valuable to the war in his current job. They're proven quite right when enemy spies steal a train (with Annabelle aboard), and Johnnie is the only one around to do anything about it. He single-handedly takes his own engine in pursuit.

Oh, and by the way -- Johnnie supports the Confederacy.

It's truly quite awkward watching The General for this reason. I found it impossible to fully forget that the movie's hero is fighting for the wrong side, and that these villainous spies are actually fighting to end slavery. I found it even more awkward when, after I'd finished the movie, I learned that the story was actually based on a real event, the 1862 "Great Locomotive Chase." In the actual history, the Confederates were the train thieves; it was a Northern civilian who led Union volunteers in a rescue.

Buster Keaton, not only star of this movie but co-writer and co-director, flipped the roles around because he didn't believe his audience would accept Confederates as the bad guys. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked that in 1926, some 60 years after the Civil War, there would be such a lack of understanding about which side was the villainous one. After all, we're now 90-plus years further along, and it seems a distressing number of people still don't get it, and don't know the real reason the war was fought. (This movie won't help them; slavery is never depicted on screen.) Nevertheless, this awkward role reversal of good guys in bad guys, particularly in a light comedy that clearly isn't meant to have any moral ambiguity, made it really hard for any of the movie's charms to affect me.

Very occasionally, they did anyway. Keaton was clearly a masterful physical comedian. Sight gags abound (as you'd expect in a silent film), and it's always evident when he's sharing a scene with another actor just how much better he is at it than everyone else. It's also just amazing to be thrown back to this era when you know that everything you're seeing on screen was done real for the camera -- charging trains, hordes of extras, explosions. This movie actually cost a fortune to make at the time, and its failure to recover that investment essentially marked the beginning of the end of Keaton's career. (Only later would this movie come to be regarded as one of his best.)

But oh man, has this not aged well. (And not just in the way all silent films obviously can't.) You can almost certainly forgive the threadbare nature of the plot as being as complicated a premise as a silent film can really contain. You can maybe  overlook the dim-witted damsel-in-distress as not yet a cliche in a country that had only 6 years earlier afforded women the right to vote. But it's hard to find comedy in the Civil War, especially in someone fighting for the wrong side -- and that should have been blatantly obvious even in 1926.

I give The General a C-. Perhaps I chose the wrong Buster Keaton movie, and perhaps some day I'll try another. But for now, I'm giving it a rest.

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