Saturday, May 22, 2010

THE GENERAL (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1927, USA)

Johnny Gray is blue when his girl believes him a coward, but fortunes change when he captures a Yankee Lieutenant and saves a Confederate General. Writer/Director Buster Keaton imbues Johnny with a sublime passion of flesh and steel, his stony visage belaying little emotion but his expressive eyes reflecting a kind heart.

Keaton co-directs a physically dangerous and thrilling story about an engineer who loves two things: The General and his girl Annabelle Lee. As the nation is separated by civil war, so Johnny is separated from Annabelle, who ridicules him from refusing to join her family and fight for the Southern Cause. But Johnny is denied as a volunteer because he is too valuable as an engineer, moving soldiers and supplies for the war. Keaton plays a subtle gag in refusing to impart this information to the characters but letting the audience in on the joke. When The General and his girl are stolen by the damn Yankees, Johnny comes lately but eventually marches home.
Keaton’s wonderfully expressive eyes impart compassion and loneliness, dejection and elation without the typical overreaching facial contortions typical of the silent era. His physical humor becomes a bruised poetry, dancing on the edge of danger with a wink and a shock of black hair. The stunts are astounding, sitting on the pilot of the chugging locomotive armed with a heavy log or running amok upon a speeding train, this perilous ballet conceived without rear-projection or trick photography. Keaton never once breaks character in the face of danger, his chiseled hawk-like visage remaining hilariously impassive. Keaton also stages one of the most realistic Civil War battles as the two armies clash across the Rock River, involving hundreds of men and cannons. THE GENRAL is an amazing technical feat not only of the Silent Era but the entire history of cinema! It’s a loving salute to the human condition. Final Grade: (A+)

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