Eye For Film >> Movies >> The General (1926) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
87 years after it was made, this Buster Keaton classic has finally undergone the restoration it deserved, and the result is spectacular. The badly degraded print has been brought back to life in a bright, fresh digital edition that restores its original impact and - if the right soundtrack is proved - is liable to see it win over a whole new generation of fans.
The plot is simple. Keaton plays Johnnie, who dreams of being a Confederate soldier but who, as an engineer, is considered too valuable to enlist. To make things worse, his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) assumes he's a coward and dumps him. A year later, enemy spies steal the eponymous General, the steam engine he works on, but this time Johnnie isn't prepared to give up. As it happens, Annabelle is on board the stolen train, and he sets out boldly to recover them both.
Given that most of it involves extended chases along single sets of tracks, The General does an extraordinary job of keeping the audience gripped. Most of it is slapstick comedy - with the actors doing their own, often daring stunt work - but Keaton's efforts as an actor also deserve acclaim, as there are long stretches where he manages to convey his feelings, insights and concerns using only his eyes. Alongside him, Mack has an advantage where some of this is concerned - she revealed some years after filming that she hadn't always been told what was about to happen, including in a scene where she is drenched with water and reacts with shock. Keaton, it seems, was always in control, not last because many of the stunts were his own inventions.
Dedicated fans of silent film are quite few in number these days but such is the reputation of The General that it still has a chance of reaching the wider audience it deserves, especially in special screenings with live soundtracks. It has far more going for it than niche appeal, with its constant inventiveness and character-based comedy providing plenty of laughs. Keaton succeeds in making his character feel like an underdog even when he has the upper hand and his various moments of buffoonery never lead us to doubt either his sincerity or his ability. This is a silent film worth making a noise about.Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2014