casey Mad Max: Fury Road proved to contemporary audiences that you can make an amazing movie out of nothing more than some bare exposition, interesting characters, and an extended chase sequence. But, as we just learned, that the formula was actually perfected nearly a century ago in one of the last films of the silent era, The General.
brooke One thing those two films have in common is how much I love them.
casey Of course, they’re not quite the same. The General is more of an action comedy: George Miller meets Charlie Chaplain. It tells the story of Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), a bumbling railroad engineer rejected for service in the Confederate Army, much to the consternation of his love Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), who forbids him from speaking with her until he can enlist. However, one day a group of dastardly Union spies kidnap Annballe and steal Johnnie’s locomotive The General in their escape, forcing him to give chase deep into enemy lines. The movie unfolds from there, and is filled with train chases, goofy physical comedy, and some impressively dangerous stunt work.
brooke The stunts were so cool! Some were bigger than others, but they all put my on the edge of my seat. Like this one:
brooke I can’t imagine trying to orchestrate some of them. Trains are huge, and Keaton runs around them like it’s nothing. He really sells the “I’ve been a train engineer for a long time” bit. And the history of this film in fascinating: Keaton cared a lot about getting the movie just right both as an actor and director, growing his hair long for the role of a Confederate engineer and bringing in Civil War canon replicas for props. And the movie’s big climatic shot cost $42,000 to produce.
casey I’m guessing that was a whole lot of money back then!
brooke The best thing about this The General is Buster Keaton. In a role that falls somewhere between the slapstick and serious, he balances it with mesmerizing ease, performing Chaplin-esque antics in an understated fashion that I’ve never seen in silent film before. When he makes a mistake, and he makes many, he doesn’t throw his hands in the air, he just looks around with a slightly exaggerated facial expression that perfectly captures his confusion. As much as I loved City Lights, Keaton’s acting here blew Chaplin’s out of the water.
casey I reckon that comparisons between the two go back as far as their careers do, but it’s fun to see the differences between in how they play comical characters that are broadly similar. Chaplin’s tramp is simultaneously more exaggerated and sentimental, but Keaton maintains a kind of dignity despite his many pratfalls in a way that’s uniquely entertaining. I look forward to watching more movies from both of them.
brooke This movie managed to have fun while still being thrilling and dramatic. There are so many small touches I loved, like this scene were the forlorn Johnnie has been sent away by Annabelle Lee (is there a more Southern name than that one? I submit that there is not). As he sits and wallows on the side of the engine, it just takes off with him sitting there.
casey That’s quality comedy there. One thing that’s a little jarring for the modern viewer is the movie’s romantic view of the South, which, I guess, you have to take for what it is. It’s not nearly as thematically questionable as, say, Broken Blossoms, but it’s kinda weird.
brooke Oh goodness. As I was doing some reading, I learned that the book it’s based on makes the Union as the good guys, but Keaton and his production team decided to flip the narrative because they though their audience wouldn’t accept the Union as heroes. Funny how perspectives changes over 90 years…
casey Or maybe not… (insert timely political joke here). Anyway, I enjoyed The General quite a bit, and I look forward to watching more movies like it. I give it five conniving Union soldiers out of five.
brooke I concur. I loved it from beginning to end.