Hollywood history is full of great films that for one reason or another failed to click with the paying public at the time of their original release, either because they were ahead of their time or simply, through no fault of their own, out of fashion. But The General appeared in a climate warmly disposed both to Buster Keaton himself and to silent comedy generally, yet somehow it was more or less overlooked until the Keaton revival got underway in the nineteen-sixties. It is now routinely cited as Keaton’s masterpiece and quite possibly the greatest silent comedy of them all, and though he luckily lived to see the film’s rehabilitation, it effectively marked the end of his great years as a filmmaker.
Fascinatingly, the film was inspired by a true story (retold by Disney in 1956 as The Great Locomotive Chase) in which a gang of raiders stole a Confederate locomotive. Keaton uses this true event as a springboard for a relentless chase comedy in which his Southern engine driver has to chase and retrieve his beloved locomotive (the titular General) and save his girl (Marion Mack) who happens to be aboard at the time.
Few other comedies are so tightly controlled, so carefully structured, and so perfectly balanced in their maintenance of dramatic momentum while at the same time keeping up a seemingly unbroken stream of unflaggingly inventive gags.
Indeed the film’s most certain claim to greatness lies in the seamless integration of its gags within the narrative; not a one feels grafted on or fails to pay off in terms of plot. And because the audience is genuinely concerned that Keaton’s mission should prove successful, his comic inventiveness is not merely hilarious but also dramatically exciting.
His persona, too, seems better suited to our age than those of many of his contemporaries: he is essentially a minimalist, he neither strains for effect nor attempts to generate emotion, maintaining instead an attitude of unyielding stoicism, however maliciously the fates seem to conspire against him, that is both funny and oddly inspiring.
One of the film’s more surprising incidental merits is its highly convincing sense of period, with every detail of props, costumes, engines and weapons meticulously researched and accurately recreated. Like a book of old sepia photographs brought magically to life, it evokes the atmosphere of the Civil War better than many a straight drama.