The General is set in the time of America's Civil War.
Buster Keaton is a railroad engineer in charge of a small but beautiful engine, The General. When war erupts, he seeks to enlist -- but is rejected on the grounds that a good railroad engineer is more valuable to the South than another foot-soldier.
Trouble is, the recruitment office doesn't bother telling him why he's rejected -- he's just summarily kicked out of the office. As well as loving the General, he loves his girlfriend Annabelle. But Annabelle, having seen both her beloved brother and father enlist to fight the damn Yankees, now thinks Johnnie Gray is a coward. She'll have nothing to do with him until she sees him in uniform.
But fate takes a strange hand. A band of Yankee soldiers disguised as civilians penetrate deep into Confederate country and steal the General. Annabelle is seized too, and taken along for the ride. So what can Johnnie Gray do, but use every means possible to chase after the two things he loves, and bring them back to the South -- or die in the attempt.
The story, surprisingly, is true. Buster Keaton based his classic 1927 movie on a true tale of Civil War bravery. And the result is sublime. Forget that this is a silent movie. This 1927 classic has more expression, movement and sheer beauty (along with its comedy) than 99 per cent of films made today.
Part of the film's success comes from the still-astonishing story it tells. But its lasting appeal comes from the way it is told, with Buster Keaton, as director and star, confirming his place as the absolute top comedian of the silent era. Well, I'd place alongside him the blissful Laurel and Hardy -- that's a very select Pantheon indeed.
Keaton has been described as being a deadpan comic. But that's not the Keaton I recognise. His expressions are subtle, but always eloquent. And when in repose, his face has a strangely archaic Romantic-era beauty which serves to counterpoint his comedy.
The film is told with rapidity but always intensely gracefully. Keaton was denied the use of the real General to tell this tale, and trekked out to Oregon, where old locomotives and narrow tracks still existed. The film abounds in stunts, most of them life-threatening, and all done by Keaton in person. But Keaton's physical sight-gags are a far cry from the usual slapstick comedy of the day -- they're more balletic than physical -- that they're dangerous concerns only Keaton, not us .......
The cinematography throughout is just wondrous. Several commentators (including Orson Welles) compares the cinematography to the legendary Civil War still-photographs commissioned by or, in some cases, actually taken, by Mathew Brady. Most polls taken in the US still place The General in the top 100 movies of that country (well, they say of the world, but they are Americans, after all) and viewing this movie confirms its stature. Although very different in intent, it can be placed alongside classic European silent movies from masters such as Lang or Eisenstein.
This is a French restoration by the Mk2 company and presents The General in absolutely beautiful restored condition, as if we're part of its premiere audience. When we do detect some damage or artefact, it astonishes us by its rarity -- this is in virtual pristine condition.
And it is projected at its correct speed, so that movement is not artificially speeded-up. My only regret is that the entire movie is presented in black-and-white, without the mood-inducing colour tones introduced from time to time (sepia, deep blues) in screenings in the silent era.
The DVD cover slick promises us a choice of two audio channels -- a brand-new 5.1 Surround audio track featuring a new score composed by Japanese composer/conductor Joe Hisaishi, recorded in 2004 with the Tokyo City Philharmonic, or a stereo soundtrack featuring an alternative score recorded in 1995 and composed by Robert Israel.
It would have been great to have sampled two different scores, and seen which followed Keaton's storytelling best. Unfortunately, the Robert Israel score seems to have been dumped. The stereo version is instead a repeat of the Hisaishi score, but missing the richness of its 5.1 Surround guise.