17 April 2001 | MadReviewer
The Genius of Buster Keaton
Probably Buster Keaton's best film, and oddly enough, it's not even a straightforward comedy it's actually an action film, with clever doses of romance and comedy tossed in for good measure. `The General', which is set during the Civil War, is about a train engineer named Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton, of course) who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army . . . and is turned down because the army feels he'd be much more valuable for the war effort as an engineer instead of a soldier. However, through a series of misunderstandings, both Johnny's family and his girl think he's a coward, and they refuse to speak to him until he becomes a soldier. Months pass, and Johnny, sad and alone, is piloting his train the General when it is stolen from him by the North. Johnny's efforts to recover the General and to win back his girl's love become an unbelievably funny and action-packed series of events, as Johnny tries to go from being a sad-sack buffoon to being a hero.
If you haven't watched many silent films, they demand a greater amount of attention than `normal' film there are no audio cues; and volumes can be spoken with a simple facial expression. Buster Keaton is amazingly expressive, as he's fully capable of going from wildly happy to downtrodden and sad in the blink of an eye. While funny, Keaton is much more than just a clownish figure he manages to evoke a lot of sympathy as well, and he genuinely becomes what can only be described as an action hero as well. His timing, whether for a joke or for a tender moment, is absolutely impeccable.
What's also great about `The General' is the sheer amount of stunts and physical humor a movie like this couldn't be made today. No amount of insurance would cover it. Keaton does all his own stunts, and manages to perform a number of feats that are simultaneously hilarious and dangerous he chases down `The General' with a bike, he sits on a moving cattlecatcher, knocking away railroad ties with a tie of his own. All these stunts are fantastic, but it's scary to think that any one of these probably could've killed Keaton if something even went slightly wrong.
`The General' is a lot more than slapstick. Personally, I think it's one of the first films to push the envelope of movies it goes for action, romance, and humor, and it pulls all of those elements together into a terrific movie. If you've never seen Buster Keaton or, for that matter, a silent film go find this one and watch it. It's a classic. A+