Stars: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
Genre: Action Adventure, Comedy
Widely considered to be one of Keaton's best, if not his best, by many fans. Quite ironic being that at the time of its release it received poor reviews and was a complete failure at the box office. This film is actually the main reason Keaton's career was ruined; because of this film's failure he was forced to move to MGM where he lost nearly all of his creative control and only made lackluster comedies from then on. In fact for a long time the only person who would have called The General Keaton's best film was Keaton himself; a statement he believed true and stuck with till the day he died.
But now The General is seen by the majority to be Buster Keaton's best, or at least one of. Orson Welles (director of Citizen Kane, which is largely considered to be the greatest film ever made and the first masterpiece of cinema) has been quoted as saying that The General is "the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made." Film critic Roger Ebert lists it in his top ten films of all time, along with countless other cinema buffs and it's been on countless lists of greatest films of the silent era. So why is it that this film went from failure to success in the eyes of the public?
I think one thing that may have plagued this film at the time, and still, to an extent, to this day, was that The General, in defiance of Buster Keaton's reputation, isn't really a comedy. Keaton was known for making Romantic Slapstick Comedies, and sure, The General has plenty of slapstick and comedic and even romantic elements, and it follows the same plot of boy-overcoming-obstacles-to-win-girl that nearly every other Keaton film followed, but, I think, The General is, and was indeed intended to be, more of an Action Adventure picture. And if you view it as an Action Adventure film with comedic elements rather than a straight Comedy with adventure elements I think the film becomes much better. Because let's face it, when you compare The General to Sherlock, Jr. you realize that when it comes to laughs The General is severely lacking. The General is perhaps Keaton's best produced and shot and structured film but his funniest? Absolutely not.
The General is a good film but I wouldn't call it one of my favorites from Keaton. It's shot very well and has some excellent cinematography; the lenses capture some truly beautiful images. The plot is, as I said, a typical one for Keaton, but it works here perhaps better than in any of his other films. Sure, the female Keaton is trying to save is nearly the complete opposite of likable, and yes the film forces you to root for a Confederate soldier, but this is still probably Keaton's most engaging film. The plot actually feels like it progresses here. It feels, as it should, more like the film is taking you on an actual adventure. It is, for lack of a better word, perhaps Keaton's most filmish film. Whereas Sherlock, Jr. was non-stop comedy with laugh after laugh, The General is non-stop action with awesome scene after awesome scene. You may not be laughing the whole way through but you certainly won't be bored.
Above all I wouldn't call this one of my favorite Keaton films because when I think of Keaton I think of non-stop laughs and The General just doesn't achieve that. It has its funny moments and Keaton is still a pleasure to watch regardless, but I didn't want a Buster Keaton Action Adventure and I don't think anyone at the time did either. Looking back on it we can see it as a great Adventure film with some fabulous Action scenes and superb production values but it'll never be my favorite Keaton as it seems to be for so many people.
An Action Adventure first, a Slapstick Comedy second, a great film overall, and a largely enjoyable one at that. Essential Keaton. Just barely short of a 4/5.
Purchase The General on Amazon: Blu-Ray - DVD - Stream