The General – 1926 Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman
A set piece high-wire act that last for nearly the entire duration of the film
At age 31, Keaton has a second unassailable masterpiece between this and Sherlock Jr. in 1924
As we open, the camera glides from Buster (as an engineer manning the locomotive) to the name “The General” on the train in a single take—in one single shot, with no dialogue, the pride on his face—these two are aligned
If that wasn’t already confirmed next we talk about “the two loves in his life”- the general and Annabelle Lee
Keaton’s Johnnie Gray wants to enlist for her, can’t because of his profession, she is disappointed, and we’re off and running
11 minutes in—a gorgeous shot, again, Keaton and the general aligned- his single greatest deadpan (dejected) and going up and down on the crank and connecting rod of the train
Again and again, often in long shot to take in the entire frame- we get such choreography with Keaton and the train- an extension of his body—another highly is at 26 minutes where he’s caught riding in front of it
There aren’t any clever siloed vignettes—the film organically unfolds in service of the narrative
A truly genius shot at 30 minutes, Keaton chopping wood on top the train with 100’s of extras—soldiers in the backdrop. Scope and size and the dedication to the entire frame
I’m fairly certain this is the first time Keaton used the blue day for night filters and coloring in his work- to great effect here
The iris shot of him looking through the table cloth at 36 minutes
The narrative is really two chases—going back and forth
At 47 and 48 minutes the pulling down of the telephone lines and Keaton is bounding from one cart to another in long shot
Certainly films like Mad Max: Fury Road come to mind—perpetual motion – really two long chases one there and one back
In the middle of all of the action, we get these really tender moments between Keaton’s Johnnie and Annabelle, the scene of her type rope around two tiny evergreens to stop the train chasing them. Then she take a tiny twig and throws it into the engine to power the locomotive and Keaton, in a brilliant exchange, first mock-strangles her, then kisses her- perfection
Long shots again- consistent choices in Keaton’s work as author. Real effects vs. special, long shot vs. close-up. I think of the contemporary work of Christopher Nolan and the attempt to go analog. George Miller’s masterpiece.
The film is a game of tag between set pieces captures so fluidly. No dialogue and incredibly engaging.
At 64 minutes the rallying of the troops sequence. Extras in long shot, scope and space. It’s Kurosawa’s Ran. This is actually a fantastic war film in a lot of ways
True to his trademark—the train here (certainly this is the most train of all his films involving trains) almost runs into a few horses at 67 mins
And then at 68 minutes the train plunging into the river set piece. No faking.
it is Keaton’s most consistently brilliant film throughout- even if Sherlock Jr. (with that slower start) has the best moments in Keaton’s oeuvre