Ah, THE GENERAL. Often hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, by the likes of people such as Orson Welles and often considered to be the quintessential Keaton film. So, is it bad that I think that the film is just a tiny bit overrated?...
Ok, Ok, hear me out! THE GENERAL is a great movie and definitely is among Keaton’s classics, but I personally do not consider it to be the greatest film that he ever made. Why? Well, let’s start from the beginning.
The film starts by establishing the era as well as Keaton’s character. Paul and metaldams are correct in that the Civil War is more complicated than people tend to think and, believe me, THE GENERAL is nothing like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which is an undoubtedly racist film despite its significance in film history.
The opening scenes are pretty good both in terms of comedy and drama. I like the way Keaton gets the kids out of the house and he shows off some athleticism when getting to the recruitment office. The whole recruitment aspect of the story, though, does bother me, and not just because they didn’t tell Keaton why they rejected him. Keaton did seem to understand his profession might have something to do with it when he pretended to be a bartender. My problem is how he just walks away from the father and brother, deciding that looking like a coward somehow looks better than being rejected. I also don’t like how they set up his girlfriend leaving him either. She doesn’t give him much of a chance to defend himself and comes off as unlikable as a result. It’s as though they’re trying to set up that he has to prove himself somehow, despite the fact that he clearly had all intentions to fight for his country.
We then move forward in time by about a year and get the set-up of the Union spies stealing the train. At this point, we find out two things about this movie: one being that this has less emphasis on comedy than usual and the other being that this is a chase movie. The first point is not a big problem; besides the questionable opening set-up, the dramatic elements work pretty well for the most part and the film still does throw in comedic moments as well. The other point is a bit more of a problem. As Paul mentions, these scenes may be a bit long for some people’s tastes and unfortunately I tend to be one of those people. After a while, the amount of variation that can be done is lessened a lot, with the Union spies constantly throwing out wood as an obstacle. Still, that bit with the cannon is genius and a lot of the shots are photographed very well, notably when the train is going under the bridge.
Thankfully, the film does take a break from the train bits when Keaton crosses the enemy lines. It’s staged in the dark and the rain, which instantly reminds me of OUR HOSPITALITY, which is definitely a good thing. Regarding the scene with the Union generals, metaldams, I agree that it looks like Karloff, though upon looking into it, this seems to actually be a common misconception among fans. Apparently, the actor is actually Mike Donlin. Here’s the article I found that talks about it:http://rjbuffalo.com/the-general.html
(Note: this information appears towards the end).
Keaton eventually does take back The General and the chase is once again on, except that Keaton and Mack are now being chased by the Union soldiers, which thankfully doesn’t feel as repetitive as before, since Keaton comes up with more ways to block the other train. One of the biggest highlights here is when the Union train falls into the water, which is a very bittersweet moment. On the one hand, it is an amazing visual aspect, considering that it is an actual train getting destroyed. However, this is also considered to be the shot that singularly ruined Keaton’s independence and Keaton could have easily used a miniature (I personally think that miniatures look pretty convincing most of the time). Still, that Union general’s reaction is priceless.
The fight scenes are fantastic. They’re very well executed and they even manage to throw in some nice visual gags like with Keaton’s sword. Also, while I don’t like how the whole “Keaton having to prove himself” set-up was initially handled, I do have to admit that there still is a certain charm to seeing him get promoted to lieutenant at the end, and they even manage to create another funny visual closing gag out of this.
The supporting cast is fine. While I don’t think Marion Mack’s character is written well at first, she does do enough of a good job with her acting and she does help out a lot when it comes to putting barriers up for the Union soldiers. The Confederate general is intimidating and authoritative enough as well, though, still, the supporting cast isn’t particularly great.
So, overall, the film is very good, but I personally think that it is just a bit overrated. Keaton was able to make films that were very good at combining dramatic storytelling and comedy, such as OUR HOSPITALITY and a couple of upcoming films and while THE GENERAL’s story is good, I just don’t think that it entirely lives up to its reputation. Still, THE GENERAL is worth checking out if you’re a Keaton fan and want to see a different change of pace for him.
9.5 out of 10