Perhaps the first action comedy, Buster Keaton’s defining 1926 classic The General makes great use of Keaton’s laws-of-physics-defying body and face, solid location work, and perfectly framed calamity to tell the story of a man who has only two loves—a woman and a train—and has them both taken away by the Union Army shortly after the American Civil War breaks out. Most adventures of the time tend to get the mildly condescending, “Well, it was good for its time” descriptor, but the majority of the big setpieces in The General still hold up, particularly that long, long train chase that makes up the bulk of the movie and veers almost frenetically from big laughs to still-resonant thrills. Watching The General now means wondering how the hell Keaton and his crew pulled off many of the biggest stunts, then laughing at his finely honed sense of whimsy.
The choice of preference between Keaton’s silent films and Charlie Chaplin’s is one of those all-time-essential film-geek arguments. While their skill sets are remarkably similar—both are excellent physical comedians, and both usually succeeded in finding solid emotional throughlines to connect their gags—The General offers perhaps the best case in Keaton’s favor. He was fond of pathos—look at how everyone in town rejects him just because he isn’t in the Confederate army—but he never wallowed in it or made it the sole reason for his movies’ existence. He gets rejected from the army, and while he’s sad about it, it’s more or less the setup for a standard action-comedy: Thus he becomes a man with something to prove! Keaton’s strengths lie more in the construction of elaborate setpieces and visceral gags that build atop each other until every moment of the film adds up to something greater than a mere collection of comic bits. And that’s the sense that marks the film’s true place in cinematic history.
It’s remarkable just how much The General’s beats influenced the present-day action film. Steven Spielberg famously studied the train-chase scenes to create the mine-cart sequence in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (still the best reason to watch that movie), but the film’s template is echoed in practically every other film in the genre, right down to 2008’s Pineapple Express. The General is about a regular guy who gets drawn into events beyond his control, then uses his commonsensical approach and unique talent to save the day. Watching it is like watching one of the great American myths being made up on the fly.
Key features: There might seem to be no reason to purchase The General on Blu-ray, but Kino has done a terrific job with the picture transfer, creating something crisp and clear and with a minimum of visual artifacts. Seeing it in this format feels about as close as one can possibly get to traveling back to the ’20s for the première. Sadly, the soundtrack selections and features are a bit paltry, though it’s possible the company did the best it could by digging up home-movie footage from the time of filming and presenting featurettes about the current state of the filming locations and the true history behind the wild story. There’s also a fun montage of train gags from Keaton films. Still, with a film as storied as this one, it’s a little odd that there isn’t even a “This film is important because…” documentary.