AFInity: The General

By Kim Hollis

July 6, 2010

He seems to be doing it wrong.

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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.

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