Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The General Olde Tymey Review

Ladies and gentleman - I would like to introduce you to Mr. Greg Wiker.  He is my former cohort of our original blog, "Two Guys, One Movie," and has now signed on as an occasional contributor to Bearded Reviews.  His column will consist of "Olde Tymey Reviews," to go along with the existing "Trimmed" and "Retro" reviews.  This is his first one.  Welcome, good sir!

One of the first silent(ish) films I ever watched was Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a masterpiece of both physical comedy and emotive expression; it broke me in to the genre, but for quite some time, the works of Chaplin’s fellow silent film physical comedian Buster Keaton somehow avoided my grasp.  The General, undoubtedly Keaton’s most iconic work, seemed to me the best place to start to introduce myself to the man’s talents.  At its core, The General is a love story; perhaps more accurately, one could say two love stories. There is a traditional love story of the love between a man (Keaton) and a woman (Marion Mack), shamed by what she believes to be Keaton’s cowardly unwillingness to sign up for the Confederate Army, when in actuality he was rejected because of the importance which was assessed to his work as a locomotive engineer.  However, the more important love story of the film is that of man and machine, of Johnny Gray (Keaton) and his beloved locomotive, The General which is stolen away from him underneath his nose and which he quickly gives chase to retrieve, by any means possible.

As Keaton attempts to recapture his lost love, he presents to the audience some of the most impressive stunt work ever put to film in the silent age, or any other age for that matter.  His willingness to suffer for the sake of the picture knows no bounds, and he takes chances in his work that hardly any modern actors would be willing to risk (even if they were, the studios would quickly nix the idea).  His physical work never ceases to impress, but the more intimate moments of the film are often more difficult to decipher.  It is with regard to this aspect of their acting that he contrasts most clearly with Chaplin, by playing a more honest, less exaggerated character, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances.  When Chaplin shares a scene with another character in one of his films, the effort required to read his expressions and feelings is limited; Keaton, on the other hand, beckons the audience to read the lines of his face, to look into his eyes, and to somehow hope to penetrate his soul.  One could argue at length about which approach is better; I find Chaplin to be a great deal more likeable as a leading man than Keaton, but Keaton has what can undoubtedly be described as a more timeless approach to his craft.

The film is epic in scope, but in a way that avoids becoming ostentatious like certain other large-scale films of the silent era.  Only sixty years removed from the conclusion of the Civil War, the staging of the film, as well as the fact that it was silent and in black and white, provide a more realistic look at the South during the Civil War (as limited as that look may be) than any movie made since.  In the end, Keaton saves the day, returning home a hero, and through his efforts earns himself a promotion of rank in the Confederate Army, as he is reunited with both of his seemingly lost loves, woman and machine.

In 1998 when the AFI first released its list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, The General was inexplicably left off, and a similar fate befell one of the other great silent films of the era, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.  In 2007, the glaring mistake was remedied, with Sunrise entering the list at number 82 (still too low!) and The General slotted in at number 18. 

The General is available, and free to all, on youtube.

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