The General is a film everyone knows. Every time we see a train depart off its intended course, it owes at least something to The General. The General has lodged itself into popular consciousness: yet when it was released, much like Citizen Kane (1941), or The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or Blade Runner (1982), it received mixed reviews, met as a commercial failure. Harold Lloyd remained the most popular silent comedian in the United States; Keaton’s career at United Artists was at an end. But The General underwent reappraisal: Kramer notes that during the last years of Keaton’s life, he witnessed the film’s revival, finally recognised as the masterpiece he believed it to be.
I didn’t laugh at a single gag in The General.
This should perhaps be a problem, but the film remains a sight to behold for its scale. Lloyd may have been just as daring with the spectacle of his films, hanging from a clock above a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923), or caught between crowds in Speedy (1928), but Keaton shows a true mastery of visual composition and the movement of gags: bridges collapse, dams flood, battles rage amongst trees. The film may be constrained to a railroad (filmed on the Eastern Railway in Oregon), but there is an expansiveness few could achieve; Keaton pays close attention to the geometry of the frame, framing his character as an outsider. We become in awe of the immensity of the landscape as the train cuts across it; Keaton’s framing of the battle scenes, men reduced to mere pinpricks or illuminated in silhouette, can only bring to mind later war epics.
Dziga Vertov avoided using intertitles to profess cinema as a new medium distinct from bourgeois forms, with documentary realism, but Keaton’s sparse reliance (besides brief exposition or dialogue) on the intertitle draws the viewer’s attention to the visual.
As Tony Zhou explains in his video essay Buster Keaton: The Art of the Gag, Keaton, with his roots in vaudeville, kept his focus on what could be achieved in camera, rather than relying on editing techniques or camera effects. The General’s sole visual effect appears in one shot, as Keaton’s protagonist Johnnie peers through a peephole cut into a tablecloth to view the capture of his fiancée Annabelle, superimposed upon the frame.
But my audience seemed split: The General is a funny movie. It’s something to laugh at, enjoy, have a good time with. Enjoy the spectacle – why apply pretentious intellectualism to every frame that passes the eye?
But The General is a film about the American Civil War. A silent comedy telling a historical narrative isn’t uncommon: though Lloyd and Chaplin drew much focus to the present day, films like The Gold Rush (1925) looked back to the 1890s, a period best remembered today as a breakfast cereal. The railroad is a new frontier, the train a symbol of modernity: one of many important inventions of the 19th century that rapidly reshaped life as we knew it in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, creating a new sense of connectedness in a country on the verge of war. Even one of the earliest silent films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), perhaps the first Western, focused on the railroad.
Just as with other comedians who grew out of the silent era, The General draws a duality between modernity and change against established tradition. In Speedy, Lloyd’s protagonist must fight to preserve New York City’s heritage, ensuring the last horse-drawn carriage in Greenwich Village is not dismantled by bully boys or business tycoons, in a city fast adapting to automobiles and the subway; in Modern Times (1936), Chaplin’s Tramp tries to keep up with the mechanical pace of modern industrial life, when all he wants in life is the woman he loves.
But then what about the Civil War? The American Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history, seems to have faded from memory: cinema focuses on different wars, celebrating heroism yet advocating pacifism in Hacksaw Ridge (2016), or reducing Vietnam to a mere backdrop to cinematic franchises for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017).
Cinema focuses on the Before through the slave narratives of 12 Years a Slave (2013), or the After, stripping the Western to a set of codes and conventions, celebrating a heroic dualism whilst reinforcing problematic images of Native Americans.
Where we invoke the American Civil War, it is almost always racial: in Lincoln (2012), Spielberg valorises Lincoln’s efforts to control the House and pass the Emancipation Proclamation. Meanwhile, Free State of Jones (2016) drew most of its attention for its focus on a white saviour narrative.
Silent cinema carries an uneasy heritage. The Birth of a Nation (1915), perhaps the first blockbuster, based on Griffith’s memories of his own father, drew sympathy to Southern slave owners, was met with protests by the NAACP and sparked the resurgence of the KKK. The Civil War may feel an eternity ago, yet cinema began less than two decades after the end of the war; by the 1920s, it remained in living memory. In Speedy, we become acquainted with a group of elderly veterans, recounting their stories of the war in a bar.
It still carries implications today.
The Civil War, as one of the earliest wars to carry a photographic record (alongside the Crimean War), seems the earliest war to carry a degree of cinematic accuracy, creating a moving record of the period impossible at the time, before even World War I, World War II or Vietnam could become truly visual wars through news coverage.
The General seems largely apolitical: the farthest acknowledgement of slavery is through a Cotton Growers Exchange amongst the storefronts in the background of a shot. Chaplin was more political, satirising Hitler’s fascism in The Great Dictator (1940), eventually branding him as un-American. Yet the film’s paradoxical approach to war raises something of interest.
As Kramer emphasised, the film’s title doesn’t refer to Keaton’s character: it refers to his engine. The film draws a duality between deserter and soldier: in the opening scene, Johnnie is rejected at enlistment, displaying an apathetic rage, retorting “if you lose the war, don’t blame me.” Unlike the slave owners, he becomes regarded as a disgrace to the South.
Johnnie tries to avoid the war – he’s a train driver, first and foremost, holding onto his existing way of life amidst the chaos of war, yet no longer able to even spend a comfortable night in bed. In one sequence, the train passes by a battlefield emerged out of nowhere; Johnnie is a side character to a historical epic, placed as protagonist. Later, he stands aside from a group of marching soldiers, almost flattened as he tries to cross the road alongside Annabelle.
As the opening intertitle informs us, there are two loves in Johnnie’s life: his fiancée Annabelle, and the General. The film is on the verge of creating a screwball comedy love triangle; Johnnie brings home a framed photograph to Annabelle of him and the train.
Unavoidably, Johnnie becomes caught up in war: he must facilitate it, carrying soldiers and cargo upon his train. The narrative arc proves Johnnie’s worth as a soldier, unwittingly appointing him as lieutenant in the closing scenes. Johnnie adopts the role of soldier as performance, taking neither side, adopting the uniform of both North and South, creating a patchwork identity. He must rescue his fiancée from the deliberating North, soldiers who are implicitly rapists, stealing a uniform to escape. He becomes regarded as a Union spy and a saboteur, knocking down power lines, disrupting train tracks. Whether intentionally or not, Johnnie must determine the outcome of the battle on Rock River Bridge; he can’t even swing a lance, yet he must fight – and create chaos.
He adopts his identity wholeheartedly: Johnnie waves the Confederate flag, before swiftly being knocked down. Where today the flag must be removed from South Carolina flagpoles, erased from the bonnet of The Dukes of Hazard (1978-85), or unwittingly worn by Radar in Paper Towns (2015), here it is a symbol of the war. Yet as Johnnie embraces Annabelle, kissing her whilst leading men to battle with his lance, he will never commit fully to this identity.
Yet what of the role of women? The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s seemed to present men and women in equity and romantic harmony; or, still to this day, women as housewife and sex object. Some female filmmakers, like Alice Guy Blaché, were able to make a living in early cinema, but this was an exception. Annabelle may be Johnnie’s love, and she may be able to drive a train, yet she is regularly excluded from the film’s narrative. She conforms to the trope of the damsel in distress, captured by the North; becoming literally faceless as Johnnie places her in a sack for storing boots, throwing her into a train’s cargo, allowing her body to be crushed and trampled; later, he pelts her with water.
Kramer questions whether she holds more agency than we suspect: Annabelle controls Johnnie’s destiny, wanting him to be an ideal man, pushing him towards being a soldier. Yet these readings should not excuse the fact that the films of the 1920s were largely far from feminist.
But can we really declare The General as one of the greatest films ever made? As the cinematic library has expanded, its ranking in Sight & Sound has declined. The position of films in the popular consciousness is, as ever, in flux. The power of the silent, or indeed of the American Civil War, is always changing.
The General is an essential of silent cinema: but it is not a masterpiece, nor is it even necessarily a comedy as we understand it today. Chaplin and Lloyd may perhaps even be a greater watch. But The General still demands to be seen, if only ever once.