The General (1927)
If you hadn't guessed by the date, 1927, "The General" is a silent film. It relies on music and overacting to convey its (almost always morbidly) comedic situations.
This film is set during the Civil War and it's North versus South. Our protagonist, Johnnie Gray (Gray? Really?) is a Southern train engineer. It is said that he loves only two things, his engine and his woman. Although he's no ladies man, there is a certain charm in his shyness. His face is rouged white and he looks like a silent version of Jimmy Fallon to me.
When shots are fired and the town that Johnnie's girl lives in enlists in one large group, the men at the enlisting office decide that they can use Johnnie in a better way if he isn't in the army so they deny him. All the people around him think that he's anti-patriotic and they shun him, meanwhile he still drives them here and there in his other love, General. His lover, Annabelle Lee (any reference to Poe perhaps?) refuses to speak to Johnnie unless he gets into uniform which is impossible.
The North have concocted a plan, they are going to steal a train from the South while posing as defectors and then steam up the railway line and blow up bridges behind them so that the South will be left a little more crippled. They are also planning an attack on the South that will wipe out a large portion of the infantry.
So guess which train they decide to steal? That's right, General.
All this time the idea that only men in uniform are heroes is being questions. It's way ahead of its time and not altogether anti-war because the ending caters to the ideas of the time, but it does influence great war films like "The Thin Red Line" and "Platoon".
After they steal General, an incensed and patriotic Johnnie chases after them and one obstacle after the next one line up for him to overcome. He has to deal with a blown up track, cut telegraph wires, lack of fuel, and conniving enemies.
The North are portrayed as cunning but clumsy and idiotic. The South—grudge holding and unintuitive. "The General" is not really picking a side though it does have the Southerners being the victors...which, although historically inaccurate, is kind of fun.
What I had a problem with was the comedy itself. Yes the violence was shocking in 1926 but I'm jaded because of "The Departed" and because I don't live in the 20s. To take some of the edge off of the violence, Buster Keaton played out some 'funny' shticks such as a new member of a small party of men being killed every time Johnnie turns his back. There was a sniper, you see, and Johnnie accidentally kills him with a defective sword whose blade goes spinning into the man's back while Johnnie remains oblivious...not exactly the best taste in humor.
The stunt work for this movie is what makes it so impressive and Buster Keaton is very likable as Johnnie (he wrote and directed the film as well) It doesn't compare to either "Wings" or "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" but it is remarkable in the special effects that it was able to accomplish.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars
Posted by Micah Jones