' Cinema Romantico: The General

Friday, November 02, 2007

The General

I'm not what one may term a silent movie aficionado. Prior to last week the only silent movies I'd seen were two of the most famous - "City Lights" by Chaplin and "Birth of a Nation" (which I watched spread out over a few days). But for some reason my last visit to the ole' Netflix queue wound up with me putting Buster Keaton's "The General" - also one of the most famous of all silent films - at the top. I'd seen clips of "The General" and other clips of Keaton's work but never had I seen one in its entirety.

Keaton is our hero, a train engineer named Johnnie Gray. A title card tells us he had two loves in his life: His engine and....then we cut to a framed photo of the other love, the beautiful Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnnie marches to Annabelle's house to call on her and as they sit together on her couch Annabelle's brother and father enter. We learn Fort Sumter has just been fired on. Yes, the Civil War has begun and so Johnnie sets off to enlist in order to impress Annabelle since, you know, she just gave him a kiss.

But Johnnie does not get enlisted - despite his best efforts - since he's more valuable to the South as an engineer. Inevitably, however, Annabelle thinks it was Johnnie's choice not to enlist and tells him not to speak to her again until he's in "uniform".

We flash ahead a year and to a Union general plotting the hijacking of a Confederate train - Johnnie's train - and ride it north to meet up with the advancing northern army while wreacking havoc along the way. They do just that and guess who turns up on the train as a passenger going to visit her wounded father but Annabelle Lee. The Union men take her prisoner to make sure she tells no one. But alas they did not count on the determination of Johnnie Gray who chases after them, rescues Annabelle, re-claims his locomotive, and then finds the Union chasing after him.

The sequences during the chase are possibly the ones you've seen and many of them are a delight. It's well documented that Keaton did all his own stunts and, quite simply, that's amazing. Many of the gags involoved in this film concern stuntwork that must not have been easy nor safe to do.

It's also interesting to watch to see how long shots are held. Whereas today we cut shots pretty much every 4 or 5 seconds (most of Michael Bay's shots last approximately 0.734 seconds) here you'll see them go on for what feels like half-a-minute, maybe a whole minute, maybe longer. (What does this tell us about current society? That we have no patience? I'll leave that to you.) For instance, there is the moment when Johnnie stops his train to gather firewood with the Union still in pursuit. The shot never breaks as he tosses wooden logs up and onto the back of the train. But one of the logs won't stay put. It keeps falling back to the ground. He tries, and tries, and eventually it succeeds it knocking all the other logs back down to the ground. He surveys the scene, not about to be foiled. He starts tossing the logs back up onto the train except we can see them falling off on the train's other side. Finally, he sees this too. He's not mugging for laughs. He's trying to get some damn firewood on his locomotive and fate won't let him.

Keaton is known as the Great Stone-Face. A man who never broke a smile even in the grimmest of situations. And that can certainly be seen in every scene of "The General". And perhaps Keaton was the very first actor who subscribed to the less-is-more theory of acting. No double-takes. No over-the-top reaction shots. Two scenes bring this home for me.

One, when he arrives at Annabelle Lee's home and readies himself to knock her door only to realize she is, in fact, already standing right behind him. He merely observes this, no change in expression, as if to say, "All right, the game is on." Later, after he has become lost in enemy territory and he hides in the bushes from the Union troops it begins to rain. Again, no frowns, no ridiculous reaction. All he does is put his hand to his cheek, this time as if to say, "Yup. That's about right."

Obviously silent films weren't made for my generation. It can't be easy for us to know the thrill audiences must have received when the locomotive crosses the bridge as it collapses and plummets into the river below. That shot is 100% authentic (and shot like a documentary, really) but audiences today have already seen things like that who-knows-how many times. But this was one of the very first great films. It's mighty important. I mean, we've all gotta' listen to Elvis Presley sing "That's All Right" at least once in our lives.

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