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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’

Criticwire Classic Film of the Week: 'The General'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

The General (1926)
Dir: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Criticwire Average: A+

Though it’s considered by many to be his greatest film, “The General” isn’t Buster Keaton’s most inventive feature (“Sherlock, Jr.”), nor is it necessarily his funniest (“Seven Chances” or “Steamboat Bill Jr.”). “The General’s” greatness lies in the sheer awe of the spectacle and daring of it. Keaton’s really performing all of those death-defying stunts on a moving locomotive, like jumping one car to another or hanging onto the front of the train to throw one railroad tie onto another to move it off the track, all with his incredible physical agility and characteristically deadpan expression. A financial disappointment on its original release, it’s now routinely selected as one of the greatest comedies of all time, and one of its best moments, in which Keaton loads a cannon only to have it turn and point back back at him, encapsulates what made the comic so special: even with all of his rotten luck and in the face of certain death, our man keeps moving forward, never more than mildly alarmed at his situation.

The film takes place during the Civil War, with Keaton as a southern train engineer who joins up in the army to impress his sweetheart, and who’s forced to rescue the steam engine General after a group of Union spies hijack it. Though the film was released only 60 odd years after the end of the war, it doesn’t really have anything political on its mind; it’s mostly just an excuse to string together a series of incredible gags and stunts over the course of a great extended chase, culminating with the collapse of the train and the salute (and salute…and salute…and salute) to our hero, the melancholic, ever-calm Great Stone Face.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Edward Copeland, Edward Copeland’s Tangents

It’s also striking for a degree of realism in its Civil War setting that you wouldn’t expect your run-of-the-mill comedy to take the effort to realize. What’s even more fascinating is that even though Keaton’s character of Johnny Gray is from the South and longs to help the Confederacy against the Union, neither side is portrayed in a particularly villainous light. Read more.

Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

Keaton succeeds in making his character feel like an underdog even when he has the upper hand and his various moments of buffoonery never lead us to doubt either his sincerity or his ability. This is a silent film worth making a noise about. Read more.

Yair Raveh, Cinemascope

And he does this without CGI or rear projection. Unbelievable.

Check out the other films that critics are grading in the Criticwire Network here.

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