Empire (Australasia) - - Review - WORDS IAN FREER

“RAIL­ROADS ARE A great prop,” Buster Keaton once said. “You can do some aw­ful wild things with rail­roads.” The Gen­eral, Keaton’s 1926 mas­ter­piece, proves his the­ory 10-fold. Based on a real in­ci­dent in the Amer­i­can

Civil War, Keaton plays lo­co­mo­tive en­gi­neer John­nie, whose train, The Gen­eral, and girl, Annabelle (Mar­ion Mack), are stolen by North­ern sol­diers. At one point, giv­ing chase on a stolen lo­co­mo­tive, Keaton jumps off the train, picks up a wooden sleeper from the track, lies back on the cow catcher then throws it at an­other sleeper to get both out of the way. It’s a stun­ning mix­ture of cin­e­matic bravura and ex­treme ac­cu­racy.

“When I watch it at home, I go, ‘Wow, that is so pre­cise,’” says Pa­tri­cia Eliot To­bias, Pres­i­dent Emerita of The In­ter­na­tional Buster Keaton So­ci­ety. “But if I see it on a big screen with an au­di­ence, they gasp and burst into ap­plause.

How many movies now does some­thing hap­pen and peo­ple just burst into ap­plause?”

The gag was cap­tured in Cot­tage Grove, Ore­gon, dur­ing the sum­mer of 1926. It is not known whether Keaton mounted the cam­era on a train or a car stripped of tyres so the rims could run on rails. With co-di­rec­tor Clyde Bruck­man keep­ing an eye on Keaton’s per­for­mance, the stone-faced dare­devil pulled off the gag in one soli­tary take.

“It was too dan­ger­ous to do it more than once,” says Eliot To­bias. “If he had missed, the sleeper would have knocked the train off the track or it would have crushed the cow catcher and him with it. For­tu­nately, he tended to know what he was do­ing.”

As­ton­ish­ingly, Keaton didn’t edit on tra­di­tional edit­ing equip­ment. In­stead he edited by hand, eye and scis­sors. But for this joke, Keaton es­chewed cuts, play­ing the ac­tion out in one con­tin­u­ous shot.

“The gag is noth­ing spe­cial but the ex­e­cu­tion is sub­lime,” Have I Got News For You leg­end and Keaton afi­cionado Paul Mer­ton wrote in his book Si­lent Com­edy. “The joke could have been cre­ated by a mix­ture of close-ups and medium shots… The trou­ble is, it is not so funny. Au­then­tic­ity — that’s what Buster was af­ter.

The gag is only gen­uinely funny when you see him do it for real.”

Con­trary to Mer­ton’s en­thu­si­asm for the gag’s ef­fec­tive­ness, there is de­bate among si­lent film schol­ars about whether The Gen­eral amazes more than it amuses. “They laugh,” Keaton him­self once said about the mo­ment, “but a lit­tle bit later.” The Gen­eral be­came Keaton’s favourite of his own films and, af­ter a mixed re­cep­tion on re­lease, is now con­sid­ered a land­mark in si­lent cin­ema. In fact, you could even call it a sleeper.


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