Buster Keaton’s The General is a flop, at least according to film goers and critics in 1926. The future has proven their present to be wrong. A (mostly) historically accurate account of the theft of The General, a Civil War locomotive, is a solid representation of slapstick comedies of the silent era.
There is not too much to the story. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a young scamp who is eager to join the Confederate Army soon after the onset of the Civil War, but is too good as an engineer to possibly sacrifice himself as a soldier. Like many comedies that have come after The General, the narrative takes a backseat to the humorous stunts and comedic timing.
This movie is a flat-out hilarious, no-holds-barred comedy that I would struggle to imagine being made the same way today. Keaton performed most of his own – very dangerous – stunts to provide the most entertainment for the crowd.
I don’t remember the first time I saw part of this film, but this is what made me a believer in the high-definition remastered Blu-ray discs that companies were selling. The difference in quality is night and day between the first muddy clips and what Kino released. I know that has nothing to do with why the critics with Sight and Sound chose this for the list, but I think it is worth noting.
The General is not my favorite film from this list; however, it is undeniably important to the history of film and well worth watching. As a historical document of film and for its physical humor, this film is significant. Buster Keaton is a rare talent.