Starring: Buster Keaton; Marion Mack
Director: Buster Keaton; Clyde Bruckman
Distributor: Madman Director’s Suite
It’s incredible to think that an old black and white silent film from 1927 can still make you laugh out loud, not at it but with it. And yet The General does just this, over and over again. It’s an absolute marvel to behold and all due to the unbridled imagination of its’ co-director and star Buster Keaton.
He plays the deadpan Johnnie Gray, the proud engine driver of the titular locomotive stationed at Marietta, a small southern town not far from that other renowned haven for choo choos; Chattanooga. When civil war breaks out in 1861, Johnnie tries to enlist in order to impress his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). However, the powers that be deem him more valuable to their cause as an engineer and refuse to accept him. Seeing Johnnie out of uniform, his peers call him “a disgrace to the South” but when his train is stolen by the enemy with his heart throb held hostage onboard, he mounts a single handed assault that will see him return home a certified hero.
Keaton literally takes your breath away with his impeccable timing and comic genius throughout. There’s a famous scene where he’s sitting on the driving bar of his locomotive contemplating his fate when the wheels begin to turn, lifting him up and forward and down and back several times before he realises what’s happening. It’s a stunt that could’ve caused him serious harm, as indeed could many others in the film – after all, practically the whole thing is shot on engines moving at breakneck speed – but it’s exactly this danger that makes it so awe inspiring, like a miraculous circus act on rails. Another classic shot (the most costly of the silent era) shows a real engine plummeting through a burning bridge into the river below. It’s impressive stuff.
The DVD release also features a wonderful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi and recorded by The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a carnivalesque waltz with a theme that accelerates in time with the engines themselves. Often voted one of the top ten films ever made, The General is an affirmation of humanity itself and the power of the individual against all the odds.