Monday, November 07, 2005

Classic Movie Review: The General

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Buster Keaton's silent masterpiece, The General, at the City of Angels Film Festival. I've seen this movie lots of times before, mostly because my dad is a huge fan of anything related to steam locomotives. But this was the first time I'd seen The General in a movie theater, rather than on video at home. It was wonderful to see the movie with a live audience, and to hear the laughter at all the places I've always thought were funny, but wondered if others would appreciate as much.

For those of you who aren't familiar with The General, it is a fictitious re-imagining of an actual historical event during the civil war. In 1862, a band of Union spies attempted to steal the General, a locomotive used to ship supplies to the Confederate troops during the war. They attempted to travel northward, cutting down telegraph lines and causing sabotage along the way. They were pursued by the Confederacy in other engines, most notably the Texas, in what has often been referred to as "The Great Locomotive Chase." The Union spies were caught before they could get across the border, and many were executed. Others were rescued, and were among the very first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed by the US military.

Keaton's movie plays fairly loosely with the facts, and the story focuses on the Confederate engineer (called "Johnnie Gray" in The General, as opposed the name of the real General engineer, William Fuller) who, unlike the historical version, chases after the Union spies all by himself (although not by choice)! Although he is able to retrieve the General and warn his army of an impending northern attack, the spies are not captured in Keaton's version.

In an age where moviegoers are able to witness amazing special effects and stunts performed in a carefully manipulated environment, we do not often appreciate the amazing skill and courage required to accomplish what is seen on-screen in The General. What you see is, more often than not, what Keaton actually did, in many occasions requiring the stunt to be pulled off in only one take. For example, in one scene, Keaton rides on the front of his engine's cowcatcher carrying a large wooden railroad tie (and I can tell you from experience, those things are heavy!). He uses that tie, throwing it toward another tie lying on the track in front of him so that it bounces out of the engine's way. If he had hit the tie wrong, and it had hit him while flying out of the way, Keaton would have been severely injured or (more likely) killed. In another scene, far and away the most expensive scene ever shot on film at that time, an entire locomotive engine is destroyed falling off of a collapsing bridge to its doom in the river below. There were no models used in that scene, and that broken engine really did lie at the bottom of that river after shooting until salvaged for scrap metal during World War II.

The good news for those of you who have never seen this movie is that it is now in the public domain, and so you can get a DVD for almost nothing! Or, if you're so inclined, you can download it for absolutely nothing, and it's totally legal! Although a silent movie, it stands up to the test of time remarkably well, and I think you'll be truly amazed at some of the comedic stunts.

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