AFInity: The General
By Kim Hollis
July 6, 2010

He seems to be doing it wrong.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#18: The General

When I was a kid, my family used to frequently dine out at a restaurant called Ground Round (it's still in business, though not in my hometown). It had a super fun atmosphere, as they had peanuts available to nosh on (and encouraged patrons to throw the shells on the floor) and served popcorn instead of bread. My memory tells me that they even had a fortune-telling machine, though that might just be something I'm making up to enhance its awesomeness. What I do know for certain is that in the dining area, the restaurant had a movie screen on which they played silent movies, and I always thought that was the most fantastic thing in the world.. Sure, it was quaint, but it was my kind of quaint.

Yet, since those Ground Round days, I believe the only silent film I had watched was Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It's certainly not because of any aversion I have to silent cinema - in fact, I rather like watching the emotive actors as their words are then displayed on screen, all while accompanied by perfectly melodramatic music to highlight the action. I just don't really think about watching silent movies unless there's a reason to do so.

And so it was that after a brief hiatus from the AFI scene, I chose to return by viewing Buster Keaton's The General. And how did I watch the movie? Well, I streamed it on Netflix Watch Instantly - and viewed it on my iPad. There was something just kind of glorious about watching a film from 1927 on a piece of brand new technology. I'm not sure what Buster Keaton would think of it if he knew, or if he could have even imagined that one of his movies might be viewed in such a fashion. I hope he'd be happy that someone had discovered his work regardless of how it happened.

I had planned to watch the movie in two segments as I had some other work to do, but it turns out that I was so captivated by the story and Keaton himself that I sat through the entire thing (which is admittedly short at 75 minutes). His huge, emotive eyes implored me to stick with him, and I simply couldn't say no.

With regard to the AFInity project, one of my favorite things has been watching movies where I have had absolutely no expectations. I had zero idea what The General was about, and I didn't look at a plot synopsis before I pressed play on the iPad. I figured that the story would have something to do with war - and it does- but I also had presumed that Keaton would play some puffed up military leader who got into all sorts of shenanigans. Instead, I was treated to a story of a young man named Johnnie Gray, a chap who desperately wants to impress the girl he loves. It just happens that the way to her heart is to join the Confederate Army in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. Trouble is, they won't take him because his job as engineer of the locomotive "The General" is too critical.

Never fear, though. Johnnie gets his opportunity to shine in front of Annabelle Lee (and her father, too). I'm not going to spoil the story, because the movie is just too quick. If you've never seen it, it's best just to be pleasantly surprised at the story that unfolds. And if you have, why not watch it again and be delighted by the wonderful acting and set pieces?

In fact, I was so enraptured by Keaton that I'd love to check out more of his movies. In particular, I'm already intrigued by Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator, in fact. Not only is Keaton extremely engaging, with his gorgeous eyes and stoic visage pulling the viewer into his physical comedy, but he also performs a number of dangerous stunts throughout the movie, as much of The General takes place on a moving train and he jumps from place to place and also sits on the side rod while the locomotive moves. Outside of Jackie Chan, you just don't see that kind of dangerous work done by actors in Hollywood today, but it certainly helps to place the viewer in the middle of the action.

Keaton isn't just the lead actor of The General, though. He also co-directed the film with Clyde Bruckman, and I have to say that the movie looks absolutely amazing - more than 80 years after the fact. Since the film takes place during the Civil War, it's absolutely crucial that the viewer believe that they're seeing events that take place in North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee. I was totally willing to believe that The General was filmed on location - and I live in the area where the story is set. Researching after the fact, I discovered that Keaton actually used a forest and town in Oregon to depict the setting. As for the "big climax" that occurs at the very end of the film (I refuse to spoil it), it's absolutely real (by which I mean that Keaton used a real train to make it happen) and the impact is completely astounding. These days, such an effect would be filmed on a green screen, but there was no such thing in the 1920s. I'm blown away that an action-comedy from this time would have more impact than something from 2010, but it does. I'd be more excited to watch The General again than 95% of the action films that are thrown into theaters today.

Hopefully, if you're following along with me as I work through the AFI list, you're looking to expand your horizons, learn a bit about movie history and hoping to find new favorite films that might never have entered your consciousness otherwise. I've strongly recommended some particular favorites (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Some Like It Hot) and I've covered movies that I consider among the lowlights as well (Star Wars, A Streetcar Named Desire). The General belongs in that upper tier where Butch Cassidy and Billy Wilder reside, as the more I think about it, the more I think it's one of the best I've ever seen. It's proof that great stories can be told in wildly diverse ways. Sometimes, all we need is an actor who mesmerizes us with talent, and a story that resonates even if we don't anticipate it doing so. Unforeseen treasures are the best ones, after all.