“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“He’s a disgrace to the South.”
Over the last few years, as I’ve delved more and more into movie nerd-dom, I’ve found myself watching more and more silent films. And while l’ve liked most of them, it still usually comes down to more of a respect thing, then a pure entertainment thing. I find Charlie Chaplin immensely impressive, but once l’ve seen a Chaplin movie, I never really feel like re-watching it. But there’s on silent film that I find genuinely entertaining, that I forget is even a silent film. It’s just great action comedy, and it lives up to multiple viewings. That movie is Buster Keaton’s The General.
Civil War has broken out in America, and good southern boy Johnnie Grey (Keaton) is the first to enlist. Well, at least he tries to be the first to enlist. But as a train engineer, the army decides he’s too valuable in his current role to risk his life as a soldier. A reason they never give Johnnie. So soon, Johnnie is disgraced and seen as a coward, even by his fiancé, Annabelle (Marion Mack), who dumps his ass.
A year into the war, and Annabelle’s father is injured. She boards a train to go visit him as he recovers. A train driven by Johnnie. During a rest stop, the train is stolen by some covert Union soldiers. And Anabelle is stolen along with it. Johnnie takes off in pursuit, first on foot, then by hand car, then eventually commandeering another train. This is Jonnie’s chance to prove he’s not a coward by saving his train, saving his girl, and doing his part of the Southern war effort.
Earlier this year, it seems like the entire world, including myself, was blown away by a little movie called Mad Max: Fury Road. “It’s a two hour car chase”, people would say. And we all acted like this was the first movie to do such a thing. Well, it was even more impressive when Buster Keaton did it with trains, almost 90 years ago. Because that’s exactly what The General is. After the bare minimal set up of story and characters, this movie is off and racing down the tracks.
And it’s the tracks and the trains on them that make The General so impressive. Trains are so awkward, cumbersome and slow… In the beginning. But once they get some momentum behind them, they’re an almost unstoppable force. Nothing happens in an instant when trains are concerned. And watching the stunts and set pieces get more intricate and convoluted, all at the mercy of these awkward, cumbersome and slow to react machines, is where the real joy of this movie comes in.