The General

June 1, 2010
Hailed as one of the greatest films of all-time, The General certainly doesn't disappoint. Though I'd never seen any of Buster Keaton's work until this point, I found myself completely immersed and in love with this movie. Even if you're not a big fan of silent cinema, The General has so much heart, humor, and story going for it that it'll be virtually impossible to not like it. In fact, I'd say that film not only serves as a great introduction to Buster Keaton's work, but also as a great introduction to silent film itself.

In the film, we follow the misadventures of poor Johnnie Gray in Confederate Georgia. With the American Civil War breaking out, many of the men are enlisting in the army to fight off 'the Yanks'. However, Johnnie Gray isn't at all interested in politics, war, or the elements involved in those aspects of life. Instead, Johnnie is solely concerned of his two loves - his locomotive, The General, and his girl, Annabelle Lee. Once Annabelle's father and brother head off to the war, Annabelle tells Johnnie that the only way she could love him is if he joined the Southern cause. What transpires next is a series of unfortunate and humorous events, as Annabelle is captured by Union soldiers and Johnnie Gary, with the aid of his locomotive, must try to save her.

Though the concept may seem slightly serious, The General is a comedy through and through. I've never usually been a fan of visual humor, but the quality of the humor here is really top-notch. The visual jokes aren't overblown or lame gags. In actuality, the humor is treated as a sort of spice - instead of mindlessly throwing humor into the mix, the visual jokes are added in a subtle manner. It's this subtlety and the focus on character-based humor that makes this film as timeless as it is.

Another aspect that's made this film age so well is Buster Keaton's impeccable performance. He doesn't overreact, he doesn't do double takes, and he doesn't blow his character out of proportion. Buster Keaton was better than that, as his character always remained observed and collected. As Roger Ebert once said, "it's as if he's a man from the modern age that's been transported into the world of silent film". He's absolutely right and that's why The General has aged so well. Because Keaton never comes off as silly or goofy, we can take him and the humor involved in this move that much more "seriously", if you will.

Visually, the film's just as technically impressive then as it is now. Made in an era when movies were already starting to get bigger, the film's visuals are insanely ahead of their time. From the use of the camera to the sets used, the film looks absolutely incredible in every single way. An especially impressive sequence would be the part of the film where Gray (Keaton) is throwing logs into his locomotive's engine as huge battalions of soldiers pass by him. This shots' not only incredible impressive for a film made in the '20s, but it still has the humorous vibe that reverberates throughout the movie.

Even with all of these great elements, the film wouldn't be what it is without the great script and mood presented. It's granted that script won't be too complex - as these were the beginning phases of filming - but even the simplest terms used in the film can be pretty heartwarming. My particular favorite would have to be the film's opening dialogue card - "There were two loves in his life: his engine and...". Before the sentence can be finished, however, the film cuts to a photograph of his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee.

All in all, The General is just a perfect film. With a great sense of humor, incredibly impressive visuals, and an amazing performance by Buster Keaton, the film creates one of the most heartwarming, humorous, and enjoyable films that I've ever had the pleasure of watching.

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