"If you lose this war don't blame me."
One of my favorite films was screened in a pristine print the other night. The audience, for a change, was great: very attentive andresponsive in the best way. All in all, the screening was a reminder of why I still go to the movies instead of restricting myself to video.
As for the movie, well, I love it. It is the Number One film in my personal Top Ten. Other films come and go, but THE GENERAL has been and is now and always will be at the top.
The plot couldn't be simpler. Train engineer Johnnie Gray's girlfriend won't see him anymore when he is unable to enlist in the Confederate Army (he tries, hilariously, but is not accepted for theperfectly intelligent reason that he is more important to the South as an engineer than as a soldier). About a year into the war, Johnnie's engine is stolen by a group of Northern spies. Johnnie gives chase, not realizing that his girlfriend is on the stolen train, now a prisoner. Eventually, he rescues the girl and recovers his engine and returns to the South, pursued by those who he had initially been pursuing. Johnnie manages to warn the Southern Army of a coming onslaught from the North, there is a big battle scene at the climax, and all ends well, and Johnnie is re-united with both his girl and his engine. That's pretty much it. The plot is a basic outline that supports aseries of gorgeous gags, each funnier and richer than the one before it. Intertitles are kept to a minimum, and I wouldn't be surprisedto find out that THE GENERAL contained fewer than the average numberof intertitles for feature-length silent films.
My eye was caught by the sheer scale of the battle scene at the end. It is one of the very best I've ever seen, on a level with the best of Griffith, Kurosawa, Lean or Coppola or Jackson. What is most remarkable about this scene is that Keaton's comic moments (and the comedy in the battle sequence is only centered on his actions) do not detract from the magnitude of the battle. He (and his co-director Clyde Bruckman) plays a rather high stakes game as a director, keeping the war serious and the comedy funny, and he pulls it off handsomely.
I have to say that something about the film has started to bother me, namely the whole issue of Keaton's Johnnie Gray as a Confederate. I'd always taken the fact that Johnnie Gray is joining the Confederate Army (the losing team, as it were) as part of the dark chill that can occasionally be felt in Keaton's work, like the straightforward shoot-out at the beginning of OUR HOSPITALITY, or the funereal fadeouts of COPS and COLLEGE. The realities of the then-current political situation in the South are never an issue in THE GENERAL, except that a Civil War starts between the North and the South (I don't remember if the words Union or Confederate are even used in the title cards.) It doesn't really try to deal seriously with anything except Keaton/Johnnie's skills as a train engineer and impromptu military tactician. But does not dealing with this give Keaton carte blanche? Would I be as ready to forgive Keaton if the film was set during WWII and Keaton was playing a German who isn't allowed to join the SS, and has to rescue his train from a bunch of Allied spies? And if I'm going to have a problem with GONE WITH THE WIND for pretty blatantly romanticizing the pre-war South (and I do) is it really fair to let Keaton off the hook?
THE GENERAL is far from unique in this regard. A lot of films and novels (BIRTH OF A NATION, GONE WITH THE WIND) set during this period show a willingness to gloss over the vilenesses of life in theSouth and to see a sort of nobility in their side of the Civil War,the once proud brought low and all that. If BIRTH OF A NATION is completely inexcusable, and I think it is, I think I can find some mitigating elements in GONE WITH THE WIND.
BIRTH OF A NATION engages these political issues head on, and of course makes a hideous racist hash of the whole thing. In BIRTH, African Americans were happy under slavery, dancing merrily for their white masters until the chaotic freedom comes and they decide they are as good as white folks and start to rape white women, thus creating a need for the Ku Klux Klan, the organization that "saved the South," and after white supremacy is restored, our White Hero and Heroine get to happily contemplate a future where they rule supreme and darkies know their place.
GONE WITH THE WIND is rather more circumspect, trying to have it both ways. The big problem with GONE WITH THE WIND is its sentimental nostalgia for the "South" as an institution, a sentimentality that is allowed to overwhelm the occasional reminderof that pesky issue of slavery. The film (I've never read the book) pretty shamelessly romanticizes the Old South, calling it a world that only wants to be graceful and beautiful (the opening scroll refers to a land of knights and their ladies fair). Of course, the characters in the film who wax thus are usually people whose opinions on the matter I'm not going to necessarily take at face value.
And there are some rather pointed reminders that all wasn't moonlight and magnolias. When Ashley Wilkes raises objections to Scarlett's hiring of convict workers, actually saying that he will not profit from the enforced labor of others, Scarlett bites right back with a reminder that he wasn't so particular about owning slaves. Ashley's rejoinder that "we didn't treat (slaves)" as brutally as an overseer of hired convicts treats his chained workers can, I think, be seen as an indication of how clueless he really is about the realities of the South that he longs to return to ("aworld that only wants to be graceful and beautiful"), and about life in general.
Clearly THE GENERAL is another order of film altogether. Both BIRTH and GWTW are rather self-consciously Epic – the stories span several years, the films are super-productions, etc. The main action of THE GENERAL encompasses about 48 hours (I'm not counting the year which passes via title card, or the opening scenes that take place in probably a single afternoon). There aren't any real pretensions to Griffithian size and scale in THE GENERAL, or at least no pretensions to a story with Epic Sweep and Grandeur. And of course, THE GENERAL is what some would call "just a comedy."
I think I'm just going to have to see this aspect of THE GENERAL as being part of what I sometimes think of as the Keaton Chill: how happy can we be at someone becoming an officer in the army that is going to lose, and lose big time? I'm not pretending to have all the answers here, and I'll admit that my grasp of Civil War history is pretty loose. This has just been on my mind a good bit lately.