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The General

Year: 1926
Production Co: Buster Keaton Productions
Director: Clyde Bruckman/Buster Keaton
Writer: Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman/Al Boasberg/Charles Henry
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

One to watch for your film education rather than strictly enjoy. I don't want to suggest human beings in the 1920s were any less intelligent than they were now, but the films certainly were. An hour and ten minutes of this might have been amusing back then, but is it still? Maybe you have to be in the mood for it.

Coming from the same historical epoch that gave us Ku Klux Klan apologia The Birth of a Nation, here Southerners are portrayed as the heroes in the Civil War. Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a small town dolt and locomotive driver who loves his engine and his girl, Annabelle (Marion Mack).

The basic plot is that Johnnie – rejected from service when the war breaks out – finds his way into trouble anyway. His girl tells him she won't speak to him until he dons a uniforms and fights, and a year passes before Johnnie's train is hijacked by northern soldiers who want to use it to cut the supply lines to the Confederate armies, with no idea they have Annabelle on board.

Johnnie chases the northerners deep behind their own lines where he has to execute any number of schemes to get his beloved engine back, rescue Annabelle and make good their escape back to safety.

The set pieces that make up the story are platforms for Keaton's shtick of clueless slapstick on scales both huge and small. He was known for death defying stunts as well as comedy (we've all seen that famous clip of the facade of the house falling while he stands right where the doorway is), and the climactic sequences of the train crashing off the burning bridge would have been a jaw-dropper at the time.

We've also all seen the physical comedy stars of the silent era in action (Harold Lloyd hanging off the hands of a clock on a high building is another example), but this was the first time I'd seen a Keaton film in its entirely. Apparently his completely deadpan expression was his selling point, but I found it very off-putting, disconnecting him from any emotional investment in what was going on and making him look like he just didn't want to be there.

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