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#95 (tie): 'The General': The Reveal discusses all 100 of Sight & Sound's Greatest Films of All Time
Buster Keaton's mammoth Civil War comedy is unquestionably one of his greatest achievements. But is it our favorite Keaton?
On December 1st, 2022, Sight & Sound magazine published “The Greatest Films of All Time,” a poll that’s been updated every 10 years since Bicycle Thieves topped the list in 1952. It is the closest thing movies have to a canon, with each edition reflecting the evolving taste of critics and changes in the culture at large. It’s also a nice checklist of essential cinema. Over the course of many weeks, months, and (likely) years, we’re running through the ranked list in reverse order and digging into the films as deep as we can. We hope you will take this journey with us.
The General (1926)
Dir. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Ranking: #95 (tie)
Previous rankings: #34 (2012), #18 (2002), #10 (1982, tie), #8 (1972, tie), #20 (1962, tie)
Premise: As the Civil War comes to Marietta, Georgia in 1861, Western & Atlantic railroad conductor Johnnie Gray (Keaton) tries to enlist in the Confederate army at the behest of the beautiful Annabelle (Marion Mack). The army refuses to admit Johnnie, but opportunity knocks when the two loves of his life, his train car “The General” and Annabelle, are both seized by Union forces, who plan to use the return trip north to sabotage the tracks and disrupt the South’s supply line. The intrepid Johnnie sets off on a comic rescue mission to save Annabelle, outsmart his adversaries, and warn the Confederates of a coming attack.
Scott: Let’s start with a little poll data on this epic Buster Keaton comedy, which he considered his best film and which also marked the end of his most liberated and fruitful creative era. As you can see from the rankings above, The General has been on a slow downward trajectory since it peaked in the 1972 poll. We might feel tempted to grouse about a silent comedy getting pushed down the list by films of a more recent vintage—at this point, I almost feel sorry for Portrait of a Lady on Fire for bowing at #30, because it seems to get picked on the most—but the 2022 edition has nine total silent films on it if you count Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (which I do). The explanation is much simpler: Voters have decided they like Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. more. The two have moved in opposite directions over the past three polls, with Sherlock Jr. at #81 in the 2002 poll, #59 in the 2012 poll, and #54 in 2022. And it’s my feeling that appreciation of Keaton’s genius is higher than ever before, thanks to events like Kino’s revelatory “The Art of Buster Keaton” volumes on VHS (and, later, other formats) and, more recently, our friend Dana Stevens’ book Camera Man.
So where do you stand, Keith? Do our contemporaries have it right? Or is The General his greatest achievement? I’m going to cheat and say both things are true! The General is not the deftest Keaton comedy by some margin—we’ll discuss it later, but Sherlock Jr. is about as close to perfectly orchestrated as comedy gets, and conceptually rich to boot—but it’s an astounding swing for the fences. (Keaton loved baseball and played it often on set, so I’ll allow myself that metaphor.) When you think of truly grand silent spectacles, those rare occasions when directors were given the independence and resources to try something unprecedented, The General is up there with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. We’ll get to some of the big setpieces later, including the single most expensive (and maybe the most referenced) shot in silent film history, but suffice to say, Keaton took his blank check and derailed his career as deftly as his conductor derails trains.
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It’s no surprise that Keaton sought to top himself with The General, because that seemed to be his modus operandi during the glory days of his career, particularly when it came to the real danger he was willing to face as a stuntman in order to get a laugh. What’s surprising here is his ambition to top himself in a less expected way, by mounting a production this large and historically minded. We can get into the peculiar politics of Keaton making a film where the Confederates are the good guys, but there’s a baseline interest in making the backdrop much more detailed than you would ever expect from a comedy—or even a piece of straight-up historical fiction, for that matter. It’s odd to use a word like “verisimilitude” in reference to a film where Keaton tries to catch a train by hopping on a vintage wooden bicycle, but you look at that Union encampment in Chattanooga and it is astonishingly persuasive. Did you find your eyes drifting as much to the background as I did, Keith?
Keith: I certainly did. You don’t bring in that many extras for battle scenes if you’re not trying to get the details right, do you? And you don’t pay such careful attention to the store signs on main street or make sure you have era-appropriate trains or move the production to Oregon for better access to antique rail lines and so on. Keaton was undoubtedly going for it with The General. Which makes it all the more baffling that if flopped, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s not that hard to understand why critics or audiences might have rejected a film that was ahead of or out of step with its time. Why both greeted The General with a shrug in 1927 — it’s a 1926 film but didn’t hit American screens until 1927, after premiering in Japan — still seems kind of baffling.
That said, is this a safe space to admit The General isn’t my favorite Keaton movie? Let me clarify: I think it’s a masterpiece, especially on the technical level, and it absolutely belongs on this list, but it doesn’t move me like other Keaton movies.
The uncomfortable politics you reference above have something to do with that. Keaton wasn’t innocent of using racist humor in some of his movies—the chapter on this topic in Dana’s book is quite good—but he was hardly a Lost Cause dead-ender and there is no overt racism in The General. Keaton said he made the heroes Confederates because he needed underdogs. In Peter Bogdanovich’s 2018 documentary The Great Buster: A Celebration, Quentin Tarantino says it’s one of the few movies where he can just ignore the Confederate sympathizing. Admirers tend to treat it as an apolitical story that just happens to take place in the Civil War.
And that’s probably fair enough and it might be best not to get too hung up on that element, even with that shot of Keaton waving a Confederate battle flag. That said, I think the treat-it-as-apolitical approach is also a relic of a time when white voices dominated the critical conversation and you can’t view imagery glorifying the Confederacy as neutral. It’s inherently racist and treasonous. (As the son of white Southerners, I’m not only allowed to but kind of obligated to make this point.)
But, beyond that, Annabelle’s refusal to love Johnnie unless he proves himself loyal to the cause and ready to sacrifice his life for it is a little queasy-making, isn’t it? “The General” and Annabelle may be Johnnie's two great loves, but the train arguably earns it more than she does. When I say it’s not my favorite Keaton, that’s in part because I respond to the more emotional elements of Keaton’s films and the scenes of him as a consummate misfit trying to fit in with the rest of the world. Confined to the film’s opening stretch, those are the weakest parts of The General.
Then there’s the rest. The moment when Johnnie’s train rounds the corner to accidentally fire a cannonball at the enemy’s train at just the right moment always takes my breath away. That’s both because, wow, the technical skill it must have taken to pull it off, but also because it’s such a dramatic reversal of fortune for Johnnie. Up to that moment, nothing has gone his way. Suddenly, it looks like he might have a fighting chance. “Fighting” might be the key word here. It’s a comedy that now looks like a progenitor of the action film. That’s especially evident in the big bridge collapse scene you allude to above. There’s a reason performers like Jackie Chan revere Keaton even beyond the direct line between his stunt work and theirs.
Maybe that’s why audiences didn’t connect to it on its original run. Maybe it was ahead of its time. Here’s Variety:
The General is far from funny. Its principal comedy scene is built on that elementary bit, the chase, and you can’t continue a flight for almost an hour and expect results. [...] The result is a flop.
Is this a right now/wrong then scenario? Did Keaton miscalculate the balance between comedy and action his audience wanted at the time? Also, is it on me that I don’t really respond to this movie emotionally the way I do other Keatons?
Scott: It’s not on you. I think we’re used to Keaton’s women putting him through the wringer a bit, but consider one difference between Annabelle and “The Girl” in Sherlock Jr. If you’ll recall, Keaton’s romantic rival frames him for stealing a pocket watch by tucking a pawn shop receipt in his coat. Poor Keaton has no choice but to slump away, defeated and dishonored. But The Girl has a sense that something is fishy and she follows up with the pawnbroker, asking for a description of the man who sold the pocket watch. He still has to win her over, because he’s Buster Keaton and nothing comes easy for him, but she does meet him halfway on this. And it would feel extra sweet for them to get together in the end even if Sherlock Jr. didn’t have an all-timer of a final sequence.
Annabelle isn’t nearly so worthy. As you note, she requires Johnnie to wear the Confederate uniform and put his life on the line—and he proves so willing to do so that he literally climbs over other volunteers to make sure he’s first to enlist. But she’s not like The Girl: She doesn’t believe that he was turned away for being a train conductor and it’s up to Johnnie to prove himself worthy of her, which fate plays a hand in assisting. (All he has to do is rescue her and a train from about a dozen Union scoundrels, make his escape, warn the Confederate brass back home of a Union offensive, and get promoted to lieutenant!) We do get some moments of levity between them—we’re introduced to Annabelle as she playfully follows Johnnie down the street to her doorstep, and they work together to sabotage the Union goons on the trip home—but you’re right. She’s asking a lot from him and not even offering her trust.
As for the Confederate angle, I want to tread carefully here, because it’s not always easy to gain perspective on “problematic” films from a century’s distance. One of the guideposts I tend to use in these situations are contemporary reviews and commentary, which are often more critical of a film’s inflammatory qualities than people might assume. It’s not revisionist history, say, to call out The Birth of a Nation or Song of the South for racism–both of those films were hugely controversial at the time. From the small handful of reviews I was able to find from the period, The General passes that test: Critics from Variety, The New York Times, and Time magazine all voiced strong reservations about the film on aesthetic grounds, but not on political ones.
To my surprise, one of the better pieces I’ve seen on this issue was on the socialist site Jacobin, which, like a lot of political publications, isn’t usually great on cultural criticism. But in “The Cinematic Lost Cause,” the author Eileen Jones lays out a wide-ranging and persuasive case that the majority of American films about the Civil War take the side of the Confederacy. Jones opens a quote from Keaton about how “it’s awful hard to make heroes out of the Yankees.”
That’s as far as she goes on The General, but honestly, I question the premise Keaton offered here. How much would the film really change if the sides were simply reversed and Johnnie was trying to enlist in the Union army to impress a woman and worked to stop a diabolical Confederate plot? But let’s assume Keaton was right and the audience would not have accepted the film any other way: What does that say about the role movies played in normalizing Lost Cause-ism over the decades, even if that’s not the motivating impulse for a film like The General?
Still, I come not to bury The General, because there’s a reason it’s been on the list for so many years, often closer to the top than the bottom. Perhaps you and I prefer some of Keaton’s smaller comedies—in addition to Sherlock Jr, I particularly adore The Navigator and Seven Chances—but the bigness of The General is the point. Comedy isn’t a genre we associate with spectacle, and Keaton challenged himself to give comedy unprecedented scale while managing a comparable deftness. I have my share of favorite moments, Keith, but what stood out for you?
Keith: Oh, I’ve got plenty beyond the cannon moment I referenced above. But before we get to that, I think the canonization of The General is illustrative of what kind of films from canonical directors make it onto the Sight & Sound list, and similar lists. You might argue for Seven Chances, I might make a case for Go West, but The General is kind of undeniable, isn’t it? It’s a major work and a huge influence on later films. It’s the same reason Vertigo and Psycho are on the list while, say, Foreign Correspondent is not and, flashing back to our last entry, it’s the same reason Get Out makes sense as the Jordan Peele film to make the list. It just makes sense.
Some of my favorite moments from The General come from its commitment to getting locomotive mechanics right. No doubt Keaton used movie magic galore, but nothing here appears to cheat the law of physics. When Johnnie’s antagonist gets literally sidetracked and ends up on the ramp to nowhere, it’s more gripping, and funnier, because it feels real. And for all my complaints about Annabelle as a character, Mack and Keaton have some wonderful moments together, like when Annabelle rejects a piece of wood for the steam engine because it has a hole in it, and I love the final gag of Johnnie finding a way to salute a string of officers passing him by and kiss Annabelle at the same time. It’s a funny movie. I don’t want to suggest otherwise. How about you?
Scott: Oh what a wonderful ending, right? Sherlock Jr. redux there, with Keaton giving us something sweet and funny at the same time—and blessedly light, too, given the action-oriented finale where the Confederates use Johnnie’s information (and a bridge less stable than it seemed) to get the edge on the Union offensive. And hey, if we’re going to talk about action, Keaton stages that skirmish with thrilling élan. Just ask George Miller, who cited The General as an influence on Mad Max: Fury Road.
To me, Keaton is foremost the master of the comic sequence, stringing multiple related gags together in a seamless yet escalating flow. I already cited the bit where Johnnie is scrambling to catch up with the stolen train on a vintage wooden bicycle, but that’s after he’s tried, to equally hapless effect, to use a handcart, which flies off a piece of broken track and tumbles to the water. Another favorite is when Johnnie saves Annabelle from a cabin full of Union men, an effort that leads to all sorts of funny and absurd physical business, from getting his hands caught in a window pane to dodging a lightning strike to running into a bear (twice!) to prying her loose from an animal trap only to get trapped himself.
And to approach the Lost Cause issue from another direction, Keaton’s self-deprecation wins out in the end. He may wave the Confederate flag in triumph, but in the very next scene, after a “Heroes of the Day” title, Johnnie solemnly escorts a Union general to his superiors, gives a salute, and accidentally lets off a shot at his foot. I’m not sure he’s cut out for the service, after all.
Keith: I think you’re onto something there. I’m not entirely sure he’s cut out for that haircut, either, which reminds me of the ill-considered stretch in the 1990s when DC Comics gave Superman long, flowing hair. Keaton’s look is so iconic it just seems off. But enough grousing. Again, I really like this film. A word of caution if you want to watch it: it’s in the public domain, which means there are versions out there of wildly variable quality. Freevee, which can be found on Prime Video, has a nice-looking version (though it’s interrupted by ads) but Prime also has a dreadful-looking colorized version. It’s also been released on Blu-ray by Kino and Cohen Media.
On to next the next movie: In three weeks, we’ll be covering another of the six films tied for the list’s 95th spot: Black Girl, a 1966 film by Senegalese filmmaker (and novelist) Ousmane Sembène.
#95 (tie): Get Out