The General

The General (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
viewed: 03/02/08

I’d never seen Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, The General, myself and had queued it up simply for myself to experience and enjoy.  But on a whim, I decided to see if my kids would be interested in watching it.  I have shown them a lot of older films, not so many that were black-and-white, and definitely none that were from the silent era.  I explained to Felix and the girl from upstairs about how it was a special film made a long time ago before movies had sound and wanted to gauge their interest in seeing it.  They were up for it.  So we watched it.  In the end, I watched the film with four kids ranging in age from 4 to 7.  The 5 year old didn’t like it and my daughter was getting restless toward the end, but Felix and his friend really got into it and enjoyed it immensely.

Okay, I’m patting myself on the back a bit here for showing a silent masterpiece to these kids.  But I think it is cool.  And I think it’s very cool that they enjoyed it and were up for watching more silent films.

It also made the experience of watching the film unique, reading the intertitles aloud to them, and explaining things like the telegraph and the Civil War and stuff enough for them to follow some of the elements of the film that would be completely  foreign to them.  But it made it fun, too.

The film is a masterpiece, and partially because I had never seen it nor had any familiarity with it, it was wholly new and surprisng to me as well.  The Netflix description of the film was a bit misleading, calling it one of the funniest movies ever made.  Rather, it is a comedy and an adventure, but its greatness is not that it’s sidesplittingly funny but that it’s an amazing narrative, completely engaging, with some amazing stunts and effects, but it’s just plain, flat-out brilliant.

The handling of the narrative is masterful.  I read somewhere in which someone compared it to a train, constantly moving forward and staying on track, not stepping out for a quick aside or gag.  I think I stated that worse than I initially read it, but it’s true.  There is an efficiency and drive to the narrative that really works beautifully.

The most impressive shot, the train The Texas running out on the collapsing bridge and into the river is just one of the most brilliant images perhaps ever caught on film.  I kind of hate writing about it because I didn’t know it was coming and everyone in the room expressed surprise at the stunt.  It’s an amazing accomplishment to have set up such a one-time-only shot in days before special effects could attempt to capture such a vision.  It’s verity, the fact that he actually crashed the train into the river is there, striking and amazing.

The whole film is amazing.  I think everyone would benefit in seeing it.  It truly has its place in all those lists as one of the greatest films ever made.  The images keep running through my head.


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