The General by Buster Keaton (1926) is a light-hearted comedy featuring Buster Keaton himself as the lovable Johnny Gray who has all the luck. It is an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time, including an accurate historical recreation of a Civil War episode, hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences, and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below. (Roger Ebert, The General)
The genuine reaction of the actors in certain scenes played a part to give the film a “realistic” look. The reactions provided comic relief to the scenes, making the scenes look “real” and identifiable to the audience. Keaton purposely withheld information from the actors so that raw emotions can be captured on film. In one scene, Annabelle (from the above picture), wasn’t told that she was supposed to get drenched and when it happened, she was shocked beyond words.
His distinct style is evident in this film, with his stoic, deadpan expression and physical comedy. Keaton kept his trademark expression throughout the film while playing the role of a serious, yet oblivious man. This makes the audience pay more attention to his actions. Keaton’s acrobatic stunts, coupled with physical comedy are also a treat for the audience such as jumping onto a bicycle, only to fall off a path later on.
The General was famed for its fluid camerawork. Each cut revealed new happenings, making the audience eager to find out what’s next. The film consists mostly of long shots which focus more of the action in the film rather than the characters. “Tragedy is a close-up; comedy, a long shot.” -Buster Keaton
As a fellow comedian, Charlie Chaplin, also said “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”.
Keaton also had a unique angle of framing for some shots. The scene where Keaton was on the train chopping wood and the horses were running by almost looked like it had a layer effect.
A notable shot in this film, was when Keaton is hiding under a dining table. A hold was burned into the tablecloth by a cigar and through it, Keaton could see his captured lover. “Then there’s a reverse shot of the girl, with Keaton using the hole in the cloth to create a “found” iris shot–one of those shots so beloved of Griffith, in which a circle is drawn around a key element on the screen.” (Roger Ebert, The General) Keaton used an Iris shot to emphasize on the character. The table scene shot can also be seen as a point of view shot.
“Every shot has the authenticity and the unassuming correct composition of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph. No one – not even Griffith or Huston and certainly not Fleming (Gone With The Wind) — caught the visual aspect of the Civil War as Keaton did.” -David Robinson
The superb cinematography catches all the right shots as Keaton cleverly builds up the scale of the stunts. These culminate in increasingly impressive train-based acrobatics as he dodges the fiendish attempts by the Union men to derail him.
Keaton historian Jim Kline claims that no fewer than 70% of the shots in the film feature a moving camera which is a feat since in those times, it was difficult to do such a thing however Keaton has done it.
A notable scene in this film, was when the train, The Texas, falls into the river. Despite their own doubts, the enemies drive The Texas forward onto the burning bridge. This scene marked the end of the train chase and a loss to the Northerners. The bridge was also exploded on the set and was shot in one take. Keaton also used 500 extras who dressed up in Union uniforms and were filmed going left-to-right before changing into Confederate uniforms and being filmed going right-to-left.
Music is a huge factor in The General. The soundtrack really adds to the mood of each scene. From a relaxing music to match Keaton’s bicycle ride, masking his inevitable fall later on, to a sudden change in music to a dramatic, more sinister sound for the enemies. The music also matches the actors movements. Usually when they fall or drop something, there will be a short sharp sound. This can be seen as a way to substitute sound effects. One example is, the ‘thump’ sound when the window shuts in the enemy’s house.
The editing mainly consists of raw cuts and few jump cuts. Fade to black was also used to show a noticeable amount of time passing by, such as the scene depicting a year later.
Keaton’s films influenced many and some of them include comedian Richard Lewis and Jackie Chan for being the primary source of inspiration for his own brand of self-deprecating physical comedy. Even Pierre Etaix, director of The Suitor, fashioned the story similarly to Keaton’s, as a tribute to him.
The General also gained many praises from directors and critics. Orson Welles, the director known for one of the greatest film, Citizen Kane, praised Keaton’s The General as “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” A worldwide poll in 2002 by Sight & Sound also ranked The General as the 15th best film of all time. Keaton also has two stars on the Hollywood walk of Fame.
The General is an action-packed comedy full of deadpan humor. It is a delight to watch and suitable for even young children. Despite being the film that led to Keaton’s career loss with mixed ratings from critics, it is now one of the best silent film that was ever made.
About the Author: Karen is a student who requires more direction as well as sleep.
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