The last time you saw a silent film from 1927, I bet you were kicking yourself for not choosing The General instead. Not that there wasn't a fine roster of films in the year 1927, but Buster Keaton's labor of love, The General, consistently ranks up there with one of the best films ever made. Here's why:
As my son noted upon first viewing, "This is one epic train chase." That was definitely the pitch going in for financing, back in 1926. Because Keaton had racked up numerous monetary successes with his comedy shorts, the money men said, "SURE, Buster. You go RIGHT ahead with your nearly feature-length train-chase movie, using actual Civil War-era steam trains and outdoor location shots." After The General failed to profit, there were no more moments left like that in Keaton's career.
For most of the film's gags, Keaton utilizes every conceivable part of the engine while atop a moving 19th-century steam train. His endless imagination made use of the firebox, the tender, the smokestack, the headlight, the coupling rod, and of course, the cow-catcher (gotta use the cow-catcher!). Not to mention, boxcars, train tracks, switch tracks, switches, water towers, a period-era cannon, and trestles. You don't have to be a train nut to enjoy this movie, but it wouldn't hurt.
Keaton can certainly choreograph a fine movie stunt. And he did all of his own in every one of his films. They look like they hurt and yet he was so comically flexible, bouncy and acrobatic, that they're always delightful to behold. The blending of awe with comedy is a rare thing.
Although he's still called "The Great Stone Face," he was actually a very fine actor, using his limber body and expressive eyes to play the underdog in increasingly overwhelming circumstances. He's usually thwarted by large mechanical devices (until he masters them), or racing about on vehicles that take him on wild, treacherous journeys that no one could possibly ever survive. A cosmic every-man in an uncaring industrial landscape.
It's still disappointing to me that he chose to represent the South with his train-engineer character, Johnnie, in The General. Nothing I've read about Keaton leads me to suppose he was pro-slavery. Perhaps he saw the South as the underdog of the war and thought his screen persona would be of that persuasion. He could have easily represented the North in the beginning stages of the war, when their initial poor leadership and lack of aggression caused the conflict to drag on much longer than it should have. He definitely had a firm grasp of the battles waged, spending top-dollar on period costumes and staging huge background scenes with armies on both sides. There's a spectacular stunt, played as a dig on the North's inability to manage its attack that proves he did his research. It continues to sadden me that my favorite underdog is mindlessly fighting for the nightmare that was antebellum South.
I was surprised to learn from the documentary on the Kino DVD release of The General, that the film is based on a true event during the Civil War. An actual steam-train chase-down that was planned and executed by the Union army. Oh, Buster.
Buster is frequently lovelorn in his films. He always gets the (usually stupid) girl in the end, but his movie persona reflects his own unhappy love life off-screen during the 20s. Lots of girlfriends, incompatible wife. He eventually did meet and experience marital happiness with his third wife.
Athletic leap onto a period-era wooden bike. Ouch.
There he goes! Of course he's riding on a rutted dirt road on a high bank over water. He wouldn't have it any other way.
The lovely, incredulous eyes of Buster Keaton.
Cow-catchers are inherently funny.
The Southern Army retreats behind the oblivious Johnnie.
This is full-on crazy bananas filmmaking. The train stayed in the Cottage Grove, Oregon river for many years, becoming a minor tourist attraction.
Note: don't bother renting Netflix's DVD of The General. It's currently a very poor dub with canned classical music. Buy Kino's double-DVD and see it in its glorious restored form with three different soundtracks and various documentaries. The Blu-ray edition is in high definition—fancy! Better yet, perhaps you will be lucky enough to see it on a big screen with live accompaniment. I did this in San Francisco once and it made my life a richer experience.