In 2016, Eureka re-issued their wonderful collection of Buster Keaton shorts and in that not only can you find the genesis of big-screen comedy, you can also find the work of a man experimenting with effects and stunt work decades ahead of its time. Two shorts, in particular, Haunted House and the High Sign, stood out as prime examples of this. Not only does this duo still stand up today as remarkably modern they also contain in-camera effects that marked Keaton as a spectacularly ambitious voice. This year Eureka have followed that up with a trilogy of feature-length classics in Steamboat Bill Jr, Sherlock Jr, and the General.
In the General, Keaton plays Johnnie Grey, a railway engineer who wants to fight for the South in the American civil war but is deemed too valuable, so not allowed to join the war effort. Hard at work, he notices Union spies steal his locomotive with his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) stowed away. Without a moment’s hesitation, Keaton follows on his own and what ensues is a chase from the south to the north and back again, unlike Keaton’s other work this is based on William Pittenger’s memoir The Great Locomotive Chase.
Keaton rarely played heroes or displayed heroics beyond saving his own skin or that of his romantic interests, but as Johnnie Grey, he prevented the leaking of vital information to the enemy. Jump forward two years to 1928 to Cameraman and you find a very different Keaton. As the titular cameraman he has a monkey sidekick, gets engaged in Chinese gang wars as performed by white actors in stereotypical costume and he ultimately played a clumsy fool, an archetype he was very good at and was present in the general, but as Johnnie Grey, he proved he could be a more rounded character. That little difference allows The General to be more down to Earth and relatable despite having some of the best stunt-work in cinema history, quite the curious contrast.
In the world of cinema, it has been heavily implied that the North represented modernity and progress whereas the south embodied its opposites. It’s very rare for a film to represent the Southern Armies as anything even remotely close to inspirational or heroic, as such Keaton and Clyde Bruckman’s film is another one of these time capsules that shows how cinema has had an indelible effect on our perceptions. And that this is present in a film as historically unassuming as this, in a film that also houses Buster Keaton at the peak of his psychical comedy powers adds a depth to its status as one of the greatest silent films.
Much of the comedy takes place with Keaton sat precariously on the front of the train. He runs in front of it to clear the railway line, juggles beams of wood, changes the lanes of both his and the opposing train, Harold Lloyd may have had a similar routine but no one could do such theatrical acrobatics with the ease of Buster Keaton. Whether this is funny or not remains to be seen, but the most disparaging thing you could possibly say is that these train bound antics are hypnotic examples of what this human cartoon character could do. Funny or not, that is worthy of something between respect and outright admiration. I fall closer to the latter. On an even more fundamental level, The General is one of those titles which forever presents you with moments that make you stop and think, “that’s where that gag came from”. Whether its this degree of comic invention or formal ideas that still exist today as birthed from the likes of Lang, Eisenstein, and Murnau – this is one of the most bewitching facets of silent film; to see the language of cinema invented in both the small and significant.
While not as riotously funny as his star-making short-films, the General gives Keaton ample opportunity to experiment with a mobile set. Whether that is the surprisingly fluid camera work during the cat and mouse chase that forms the spine of the film, or something a little more insane. Keaton does something here that would never be repeated or could be repeated without the numbing over-reliance on computer animation. The destruction on-screen beggars belief with a bridge collapsing and destroying a train – it’s a shock to the system now, nearly 100 years later.
Unfortunately, this one moment of wanton destruction cost Keaton as the film was mildly received by both critics and audiences alike and combine that with the major (for then) budget failing to recoup decent profits, Keaton lost any independence he had as a filmmaker. As a modern viewer, I thought this scene must have been achieved through some kind of camera trick or through miniatures – no, it’s a real train crashing off a bridge. If the General was the success it deserved to be the mind boggles at what other insane stunt work Keaton would’ve conceived. But that was not to be, we merely have to do with this very real and very invigorating masterpiece of silent, comedy and American cinema. A rather large consolation, the 4k restoration certainly doesn’t hurt either.