My First Date with Buster: The General (1926)

by Amanda Keats on 28/01/2014

the general

I am new to the world of silent films, having previously only seen The Artist (2011). Despite being familiar with the names of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, I had somehow never managed to look into those original films where it all began. So, I felt it was definitely time to become acquainted with Mister Buster Keaton in his 1926 film, The General, at the BFI Season dedicated to his talents as actor and filmmaker.

The General follows a young engineer named Johnnie Gray (Keaton) who goes to join the southern army in the American West but is turned down because his engineering talents are felt to be more valuable, though nobody thinks to tell him that. A year later, the northern soldiers steal his train and kidnap the woman he loves, sending the young engineer deep into enemy territory to recover both her and his beloved train.

In The General, Buster Keaton proves he is more than a comedic actor by offering an emotional performance that brings out the very best in both his acting and directing talents. The physical comedy in this film is staggering. Keaton is positively athletic in some of the moves he manages and they are fantastic to behold! From sequences of him climbing over the train cars to one of him re-loading the train with more firewood, he is far larger on the big screen than his naturally diminutive stature.The film offers impressive action sequences, especially as much of the story involves a train chase. One famous shot of a train going over a bridge was particularly breathtaking to watch on the big screen. There is also constant peril for our hero, expertly heightened by the incredible music which is a big feature of the silent film world.

The only aspect of the film which feels dated are the gender roles. Though Keaton’s love interest Annabelle (Marion Mack) occasionally manages to prove her own resourcefulness (and, often, stupidity!), ultimately she is a damsel in distress in need of rescue. However, given the era in which it was made this is more than excusable, especially when you consider that many films made today are far more sexist!

Having now seen The General, I can reassure those who might be hesitant to experience a silent film that they shouldn’t rule them out as of the past or think them hard to follow. Actors did not have speech to rely on, so had to work much harder to convey the emotions of their characters and it really pays off. There is something so beautifully timeless in Keaton’s work and the way he flawlessly blends comedy into a serious story is something many filmmakers can only hope to achieve.

With recent films like The Artist (2011) and Blancanieves (2012), it is easy to see a glorious future for silent film, the glorious future that stars like Buster Keaton laid the foundation for all those years ago. They made silent film so very enjoyable to watch that filmmakers are still trying to emulate their work today.

The General remains a magical cinema experience and has certainly converted me to the world of silent film.

The General was screened as part of the Buster Keaton and the Cinema of Today season, currently showing at the BFI Southbank. For more information, and to see Buster Keaton in all his glory on the big screen, go to BFI website

  Amanda has awarded The General (1926) five Torches of Truth

5 torches




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