In which we get a return ticket through the frontlines of the American Civil War.
Buster Keaton is one of those actors like Charlie Chaplin that we almost all recognise, most of us have seen a clip or still from their films and many can name at least one or two titles. In contrast to Chaplin though, I had never seen a Keaton film before this week and had little intention of doing so before I started this project.
I’ve always had this impression of Keaton being more of a specifically silent actor than Chaplin. That’s probably not true (Keaton is older, but Chaplin broke into acting earlier), but I think of him mostly in still images that seem more stereotypically old-school than Chaplin, who has a more cinematic eye as a director that makes his films look more modern.
The General was one of the most ambitious and expensive films made at a cost of around $750,000 in 1926. It’s full of elaborate stunts, mainly involving three stream trains with actors climbing over them and jumping between them at pretty decent speeds. Keaton performs most of all, dangling from the tender and famously sitting astride the cowcatcher at the front of the train. Each one is genuine life and death.
Keaton found the story for The General in a memoir called The Great Locomotive Chase and enjoyed the challenge of making a true-life film. Although he changed the heroes to the Confederates, the rest remains pretty accurate. His character Johnnie is unable to enlist in the war due his is skills as a railroad engineer. Shamed, he loses his fiancée and works quietly for a year until stumbling into a chance to be a hero. When his ex is captured by Northern spies, he sets off alone in his engine to chase them down and rescue her.
Most of the action takes place on the railway as first Johnnie has to catch up with the fleeing spies, who place obstacles in his way to slow him down (believing he his bringing a squad of troops with him). These set up the death-defying stunts as Keaton dances around the train moving sleepers, leaping off and on the carriages, and changing the points. Later, the tables are turned as Johnnie must escape back to safety with his girl with the Northern army on his tail. It’s all done with long shots, letting the viewer know how real everything on screen is.
As Rahul Hamid says in his review, “Keaton moves through this threatening space of speed, iron and danger with both precarious clumsiness and breathtaking accuracy.” It’s this combination of smoothness and stumbles that him it so captivating to watch – you can’t help but feel like he’s going to slip up at any moment.
After watching The General, I immediately watched my second Keaton film, Sherlock Jr (more on that next week). His performance is so graceful, and you feel every risk he’s taking with his body to make his art, that you need to see more. I was mesmerised by this film, it reminded me of the non-stop chase-and-return action of Mad Max: Fury Road in its pacing and use of practical stunts. If you’ve never seen a Buster Keaton or even a silent film, there’s likely no better place to start your engine.
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