Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rarities: The General

The year of 1927 must have been a banner year for film. That year, the seminal science-fiction film Metropolis, the first Best Picture winner Sunrise, and the first "talkie" blockbuster The Jazz Singer were all released. Included this year is a film that completely flopped at the box office, yet has become an American classic and named as one of AFI's Top 100 Films.
Buster Keaton's The General follows the story of Johnny Gray, a simple train engineer operating his train The General during the onset of the Civil War. Johnny has only two loves--his locomotive and his girl, Annabelle Lee. Trying to enlist for the war effort, Johnny is turned away, as train operators are more helpful for transporting supplies than firing cannons. Believing Johnny to be a coward for not fighting in the war, Annabelle Lee shuns him until he is wearing a uniform. When a group of spies from the northern army steals The General, it results in a train chase scene that is incomparable to anything I've ever seen. Thrilling, dangerous, and extremely well-timed, Keaton manages to create a fantastic scene filled with humor and adventure. A train chase sounds a bit dull--they're both on the same tracks, so it can't be much of a chase, right?--but Keaton manages to create a thrill ride that had me holding my breath. Filled with both sight gags and incredible stunts, the train chase left me wondering "why don't they make chase scenes like this any more?" There is no choppy camera work or half-second scene cuts; there's only Keaton and his deep love for The General. Keaton filmed much of the movie in the beautiful Oregon countryside, one of the only places where railroad tracks that accommodate classic locomotives still exist.

Keaton's strength is in his stoic facial expressions. Every madcap and absurd scene is performed with a completely straight face, as if it were completely natural for him to be sitting on the drive rod of his train engine as it chugs along or to be hiding under a table surrounded by northern soldiers. Unlike the other silent film giant, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton's humor relies less on silliness and more on his character and the situation at hand. There is a depth to Johnny Gray and to the story. While other comedies might include funny scenes simply for the sake of a laugh, The General has a coherent and engaging story arc. There are no useless characters, no gags just for a quick laugh.

Leading up to a final train chase that culminates in one of the most exciting action scenes I've witnessed on film, The General is a wonderful silent film that will charm and delight even the most A.D.D. of contemporary audiences. For its timeless entertainment and adept production, this film is truly a rarity among film.

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