The General

(Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, USA, 1927)


Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) offers a reminder of a perennial debate among cinephiles: Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton? This is a logical but, in many respects, unfair comparison. Chaplin, by far the more ambitious of the two, tackled the big themes of world history, and measured them against his personal code of humanism.

Keaton was also a man of the twentieth century, but in a completely different way. His performance style – physical virtuosity combined with a passive facial expression – associated him with the machine age of speed and efficiency. Luis Buñuel praised the lack of sentimentality in his films, and their "vitality, cinematic essence, shortage of culture".

In his classic The General, Keaton played (as he often did) an accidental hero: an engineer during the Civil War who attempts to retrieve his stolen engine – and, in the process, inadvertently becomes a great soldier.

Although Keaton often shared or completely gave away the directorial credit on his films, there is no doubt that, in building and staging complex gags that could only be grasped from one crucial camera angle, he was effectively their true auteur.

In The General, the spatial and geometric co-ordinates of the action are plotted across miles of open land, often with breathtaking results.

For once, a silent comedy classic returns to contemporary audiences without a clumsy live accompaniment of tin whistles, banjos and other folk-style excesses. Takeshi Kitano’s regular composer, Joe Hisaishi, does an excellent orchestral job for this DVD and theatrical-release edition produced by the French company MK2 – complete with singing by the current Euro movie diva Anna Mouglalis during the end credits.

In 1927, Keaton reached the crossroads of his comedic and cinematic art. He took the inspired, physical gags of his earlier work and integrated them, with rousing success, into a classical, narrative format. It is among the great tragedies of cinema history that, for a variety of reasons (ranging from the coming of sound to a personal problem with alcohol), Keaton did not go on to enjoy the same long, evolving career as Chaplin.

MORE Keaton: Seven Chances

© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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