Monday, May 30, 2011

The General - 1926

“The General” (1926) is a Civil War story remarkable for two interesting qualities. First, it has the intriguing look of a Mathew Brady Civil War-era photograph. Second, the story is entirely apolitical.

Mathew Brady photo: Library of Congress, (now in public domain), Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, 1863.

As far removed as we are today from the Civil War, and despite our technological proficiencies, we could not achieve either of these qualities in a Civil War film today; nor would we probably try. In the first case, producers might shrug off any attempt to replicate a Mathew Brady photo with the attitude that most younger audiences would neither recognize nor appreciate that effect. Mathew who?

In the second case, we have a self-conscious but determined tendency (as we’ve discussed on this blog before), to justify history (when we’re not over-simplifying it or dumbing it down). Buster Keaton, the film’s star, and one of its writer-directors, avoids explanation or politics by focusing on the story of one stumblebum who tries to retrieve a train engine that has been stolen.

This post is our annual commemoration of Memorial Day with a look at the Civil War through the movies. Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War. In previous Memorial Day posts we covered “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), and picked apart the symbolism used in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). “The General” has neither message nor sweeping saga, but there is an off-beat realism to the movie that neither “Friendly Persuasion” nor GWTW has.

We might note that 1926, when “The General” was released, was closer to the end of the Civil War than we are today to the end of World War II. That may not be enough in itself to lend authenticity; “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was even closer in proximity to the Civil War, yet has more music hall melodrama about it than a Mathew Brady photo. And director D.W. Griffith’s awkward defensiveness over The Cause resulting in an infamous racist slant on the Southern justification both for the war and the Ku Klux Klan got him in such hot water that perhaps a wish to avoid controversy inspired Buster Keaton’s apolitical telling of an unlikely Confederate hero. Perhaps it only reflected Keaton’s personal lack of interest in anything more than a great gag, a meticulously executed stunt, and above all, trains.

Buster Keaton, a train enthusiast more than a Civil War buff, nevertheless purposely created his calculated “Mathew Brady effect” for historical authenticity.  His longer hair in this film is small but nice touch.  One compromise (or perhaps just an ordinary flaw) is the display in town of the “Confederate” flag of blue crossed bars on a red field, with stars for each Confederate state. As mentioned in last year’s post on GWTW, this flag now commonly referred to as the Confederate flag was not the flag of the Confederacy, and would not have flown over a recruiting office as in this 1861 scene.  General P.G.T. Beauregard, Army of Northern Virginia, sought a different design after the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) to keep his troops from being the victims of friendly fire, because the actual Confederate flag, commonly called the Stars and Bars, looked very similar to the United States flag.

At times the film’s apolitical nature is too obvious, such as when the war begins. Keaton is spooning with his best girl on the parlor sofa when her brother strides in, and announces, “Fort Sumter has been fired upon.” Her father, seemingly emotionless, replies, “Then the war is here.”

This makes it sound as if they are responding in dull surprise to news of a bad storm destroying crops in another county, an act of God. The Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter purposely to start the war. Some Southerners were pleased, some were anxious, some were certainly baffled and wondering what was going to happen next, but nobody shrugged it off as just one of those things.

There is also the noticeable absence of any discussion of states’ rights or reasons for the war. Toward the beginning of the film, a few African-American actors are shown carrying trunks off a train that has just arrived in town. The camera does not linger on them; they are easy to miss if you’re not watching closely. Keaton seems to have chosen not to show stereotyped slaves -- by not showing slaves at all, nor addressing the issue of slavery. This is how Keaton manages to be apolitical on the two most controversial aspects of the Civil War: that it was started by disgruntled secessionist politicians who wanted to protect their property; and their property was human beings.

On one hand, this seems like a terrific cop-out on Keaton’s part; but his intense concentration on the trains in this movie sweeps away the nefarious causes of the Civil War and the gore of that catastrophe. It isn’t even a case of his ignoring the politicians and generals in favoring a story about the common solider. Keaton’s character isn’t a soldier. He’s a train engineer, and he wears both blue and gray uniforms in the course of the film as disguises in order to guide his engine safely home.  Keaton rigidly sticks to his story, as oblivious to social conflicts around him as his character is oblivious to anything but his beloved train.

The story, based on a true event, is about a unique Civil War train robbery, where Union raiders confiscate a Confederate train. In this movie, Keaton is the engineer of “The General”, which runs on the Western and Atlantic Rail Road in Tennessee and Georgia.

When war is announced, Keaton attempts to enlist in the Confederate army, but is turned away because he is more valuable running the train. A series of misunderstandings, and his girl, played by Marion Mack, thinks he has refused to enlist because he is a coward.

Union spies capture his train, with Keaton in pursuit (on a hand cart, on an early wooden bicycle, and running like crazy). At this point, Keaton is unaware that Marion Mack, who was in the baggage car searching for something in her trunk, was captured by the Union men, who tie her up.

At first Marion Mack is the damsel in distress. Later on in the film she gets some unexpected slapstick moments, is hoisted around in a sack, shows her comedy chops, and even runs the train. She gets pummeled with water from the water tower spout, and in a PBS documentary on Buster Keaton shown some years ago, “Buster Keaton - A Hard Act to Follow”, she acknowledged that she had no idea she was about to be half drowned in that scene.

A funny bit occurs when Keaton directs her to feed with boiler with wood as he drives the train. She picks up the smallest, most dainty pieces, and he sarcastically hands her a sliver of wood, which she quite seriously throws on the fire. He is so exasperated with her at one point, his hands make as though to choke her, but after a shake or two, he kisses her instead.

Another laugh is when Keaton, unable to avoid getting out of a way of a cannon pointed at him, heaves a chunk of firewood at it, as if it were a dog he could chase away.

Despite Keaton’s deserved reputation for being one of the funniest comedians in silent films, this movie is not strictly a comedy. It’s really more of an adventure tale, told in constant motion. The camera following the train is in many scenes on another train running parallel. Keaton’s formidable athleticism is astounding. He runs and climbs all over the train, scrambling over the wood pile, crawling on the cow catcher. Other cast members, including Marion Mack, also clamber all over the moving train.

Just the scene where he sits on the crossbar of the train wheels and gets lifted up and down with the train movement had to be risky.

His gags are amazing for their complexity and precision. When the Union spies in “The General” chuck railroad ties at the train engine which Keaton uses to pursue them, he lies down on the cow catcher, and with a heavy railroad tie in his hands, slams it down to knock another wooden railroad tie off the track with an elementary lesson in physics. The train is still moving while he does it.

The timing of firing the railroad car cannon, first a comic dud, and then a success, was perfect, all while the trains are moving.

The most spectacular effect was, of course, the train wreck on the wooden bridge across the wide gorge. Keaton’s crew built the bridge, and then in a single shot -- it could not have been done twice -- the train engine and wood car are driven to the center, and Buster lights a fire on the wooden bridge to scuttle it before the Union men hot on his tail can use it. The fire starts before he is ready, and he must jump through flames to escape, accidently jumping through a gap in the bridge and plunging to the creek below. The fire engulfs the bridge, and the train collapses into the gorge.

In the PBS documentary on Keaton’s career mentioned above, an eyewitness to the event remarked that the silent stream of steam we see billowing out of the wrecked train was not silent at all. The train’s steam whistle let off a long, continuous shrill blast that sounded ominous and frightening to the spectators. Too bad that sound was not replicated for the movie. Some, horrified, also mistook the dummy planted at the controls for a real person.

After the train wreck there is a brief battle between the blue and gray, who finally catch up to each other. These fellows were played by Oregon National Guardsmen, changing uniforms to be both the Union and Confederate soldiers.

“The General” received mixed reviews when it was released, and some reviewers seemed to find fault with it mainly because it wasn’t what they were expecting: more than just a comedy, but less than a Civil War epic. In both the study of history, and our perception of movies, we are often guilty of clinging to preconceived notions. It was reportedly Keaton’s favorite film and the one of which he was most proud.

When a Confederate soldiers falls in battle while a confused and annoyed Keaton is talking to him, and when a Union soldier dies when Keaton’s sword accidently slips out of his hand and is driven into the soldier’s back, we are shown these events as gags. Maybe that’s what some critics had trouble swallowing. Depictions of historical events, especially in this manner, are going to seem callous, like treading upon hallowed ground. But interestingly, Keaton, both director and character, is determined to take only his train and his lady love seriously. Nothing else is of much significance. Despite its Mathew Brady look, the film’s tone seems quite modern in this respect, with wry, dry humor, at times almost cynical.  This is where he really departs from D. W. Griffith's sentimentality.

When he rescues the “Confederate flag” from a fallen flag bearer, he looks like a hero for only a brief moment. Then he gets jostled and knocked on his rear end. He’s no hero, he seems to be saying. He’s just a guy trying to belong somewhere. It’s still easy to get knocked on your rear end even if you’re trying to tread carefully over hallowed ground.


John said...

An entertaining and insightful post! I may be cynical but like you I doubt too many young folks know who Matthew Brady was and his significance to the Civil War and Lincoln himself. Despite being a comedy Keaton created one of the most visually realistic looking of civil war films. You bring up a excellent point about how modern the humor in the film is which may account for its likability among non-lovers of silent film. As you point out also, Keaton is not interested in the politics, north, south, for him it seems to be all about the story, the girl and the humor. Extremely, enjoyable article, Jacqueline!

Unknown said...

Is anything funnier than The General? A movie that's nothing but chase scenes - on railroad tracks - where it's impossible to lose the bad guy? Brilliant.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you John, and FilmGal, and welcome. It's always interesting for an old movie fan to discover that films regarded as classics today could be dismissed by reviewers when they were released.

Caftan Woman said...

The stunning look of the movie and "Johnny's" singularity of purpose makes "The General" an ever-entertaining watch. I've seen it a couple of times on the big screen and the laughs and the thrills hold up beautifully. You can tell first-timers by their unexpected laughter and the oldsters by their anticipation of the gags.

I'm moving closer to my purchase of an e-reader so I can enhance my library and carry you around in my purse.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, I would love to see this on the big screen. I envy you. Nice observation about the newbies and the ones who've seen this movie before.

Lord bless you for your intentions to purchase an e-reader so you can enhance your library and carry me around in your purse. I'm deeply grateful for the thought. I only hope you leave your purse open a little bit so I can breathe, and every once in a while drop some peanut butter and crackers in there. I need to eat sometimes. If you hear your keys jingling, it's only me.

LucieWickfield said...

Thank you for your eminently thought-provoking post! I stumbled across your blog a few months ago and have been hooked ever since. :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, LucieWickfield, and thank you so much. I really appreciate your kind comment.

Sam Juliano said...

A fantastic historical and Civil War overview!

My good friend in the UK, Judy Geater, alerted me to the review after I mentioned at my own blogsite that I saw THE GENERAL Monday evening with piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner at Manhattan's Film Forum, where they are running a 12 week Monday Buster Keaton retro on a dozen features and a dozen of his most celebrated shorts.

This wonderful essay is just what the doctor ordered. Many thanks!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Sam, and thank you so much for your very kind words. How wonderful that you saw the movie in such a venue, and with piano accompaniment. What a great series, I hope you get to see some of the other Buster films playing. I'd love to see some of his movies on the big screen.

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