BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #28: The General, by Sarah Brinks

I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.

Of the famous silent film actors, I probably came to Buster Keaton the latest, and what a wonderful discovery his films are. I had never seen The General, and was delighted to watch it for the Battleship Pretension Top 100 challenge. Not only does it have one of the all-time best silent film actors, plus fun and exciting action scenes, but it is also a Civil War movie… much to my delight. I find the Civil War fascinating and I think it is a great setting for a film. But I have to admit, as a life-long Yankee it was hard for me to watch The North be depicted as the “bad guys”.

Otherwise, The General had everything I was hoping for: exciting action scenes, impressive stunts, and lots of comedy. I had to wonder while watching the film about how many takes they had to do of some the scenes, how long many of the big stunts must have taken for them to set up, and how much of a role luck played in filming. The big stunt at the end with the train going over the burning bridge was spectacular. I had no idea it was coming and had to rewind and watch it about four times because it is so impressive. I read later that it was the most expensive scene in a silent film era and that the train had remained at the bottom of that river until World War II broke out and it was removed for scrap metal. It was a spectacular scene and it made me gasp out loud.

Buster Keaton is brilliant in the film. His trademark straight face as he climbs and runs and jumps amps up the comedy in every scene. But I think what impressed me the most was the level of sensitivity in his performance. Despite his stoic expression you never doubt his commitment to Annabelle Lee or his commitment to the South.

If I had one complaint about the film, it would the way Annabelle is portrayed. I don’t have a problem with her being the helpless victim but I have a problem with the fact that she is depicted as so inept and stupid that she is the cause of them nearly getting caught several times and for Johnnie nearly dying a number of times. I know they needed to add tension, but her stupidity didn’t always need to be reason. It was a different time back then, and I can forgive the film, but it was a frustrating element as I watched it with modern eyes.

While big train and the bridge on fire scene is the most impressive stunt, there were lots of smaller delightful moments. When The General is first stolen and Johnnie is in pursuit, the Northern soldiers drop planks of wood on the tracks. Johnnie sits on the front grate of the train and knocks them away by bouncing one plank of wood off the other and it is tremendously fun to watch. Other sequences like when Johnnie has broken into a Northern house and is hiding under a table surrounded by Northern officers and he nearly sneezes or gets his elbow burned by a cigar and very small but very entertaining.

The General is a great film for more than just the stunts and comedy. The plot is very tight and despite it being a silent film you are never in doubt of anyone’s motivation. Unlike a few of the other silent films on the Battleship Pretension Top 100 list there doesn’t feel like there is a wasted moment in the film. The General is under two hours and all of the scenes are driving the story forward. I really enjoyed The General, and am so glad to finally have had the chance to see this fun film.

I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
The General ranking: Carrier

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