Above all, Buster Keaton’s The General is a caricaturist cartoon scrawl of history, a historical epic tethered to, and upended by, the hair-raising hare Bugs Bunny. Unmolested by the burdening weight of its importance, The General is Keaton’s excuse to raise a ruckus with the past, to twist the partitions of memory, and to alloy historical event to a study in stasis and kinesis with the primordial essence of pure cinema. The presumption of operatic diction and molasses-thick sobriety assumed in most waxworks-show historical cinema – often obelisks to history rather than living and breathing exercises in movement with history – is but a distant rumor in Keaton’s phenomenally unpretentious explosion of screen momentum.
In a film beset with, or at least erupting from, the Lost Cause ideology that the South’s loss was a tragic failure of valiant rebels standing up for their beliefs, the two primary causes for Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) are his two lifehood loves, his train that he repairs by day and his female companion Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) he woos by night. His life is tarnished when she rescinds his offers once the Confederates refuse to enlist him due to his importance as an engineer. When his beloved train is stolen by Yankee spies, Gray is whooped and hollered into action to retrieve it almost in spite of himself, acting almost without visible emotional comment in his face. Early on, the world, even his own actions, coast by him with a certain predetermined status, like he is part of an unthinking tapestry rather than an active participant in the world. Until, of course, Johnnie becomes a human mid-way through, a transition with vastly more complicated and foundational reflections on American politics, cinema, and social assumptions than even the film’s revealing connection the the Confederacy. But we’ll get there before the review’s end.
I have to say, though, The General is a masterpiece, a surer and more galvanic film than the other major pro-Southern silent film, The Birth of a Nation, in ways not simply moral but visual. The film’s most famous set-piece is a delicious wry absurdism, a fundamental study in cinematic contrast: a placid Keaton, absorbed in melancholy and unaware of the world around him, sits on train wheel that begins to rattle and hum forward with the protagonist none the wiser. A paralyzed man finds himself trapped in the implacable motion of the world around him. It’s a pristine image of technical duality, of film’s capacity to draw meaning from visual stillness and motion, but the scene rings true more potently as a tragic sliver of insulated terror, a man destroyed by desire while the world around him continues to move and he remains a stone wall.
The acrobatics and athletics emblazoned all over The General are harrowing and multifaceted beyond the level of mere technical showpiece because, amidst all the whirlygust bedlam and tumult, Keaton is always at the center not mugging for the camera or hinting at terror but accepting it like a flash of light passing beyond him without any possibility for him to reconcile it. At least early on, the world seems to happen to Keaton like a centripetal wildfire. There’s a raffish, fugitive spirit to all this, but Keaton’s cinema isn’t quite the runaway that Chaplin’s was; the emphasis is always on balance in the frame, a balance which reinstates, however tenuously, a world of perpetual imbalance. This sense of conditional balance and order extends beyond mere management of the narrative and toward the management of the actual screen economy, how images of objects entering and violating the frame from one direction are balanced or counteracted with shots of stillness, usually on Keaton’s behalf. Early on, Keaton is almost unilaterally out-of-touch with the frame, opposed to its motion with his unremitting sangfroid as if moving in the opposite direction of a world that is opposed to him, a world that seems to pirouette around him, as if the frame is staging a tantrum against its main character.
Later on, the motion and stillness dialectic retains shape, but it inverts direction, with Keaton now the instigator. His agency isn’t individual brawn but learned rule-breaking, a willingness to limber up and liquefy that Great Stone Face by whipping it into movement. While he is visually the object of the train early on – a passive figure dwarfed by its titanic force or forever doomed to be abused by it in the frame – the later portions find Keaton kicking up his own kind of dust to move more freely and become part of the kaleidoscope around him. In this sense, Keaton’s film can be generously read as a genuine paean to learning, to adapting, to the fluidity of the self to overcome one’s foibles. The finale of the film, essentially the story of a man asserting himself onto the world, is more accurately described as a man giving in to the world, learning to apply its rules for his own solutions to retake his beloved train.
But Keaton’s film can also be read in another way, one that is even more generous and yet more problematic, one which commingles the film’s successes and failures into a tangle of liberal value structures. In a sense, or in this sense, The General is not some false insurgent paean to the Lost Cause, a conservative trek to the supposedly-halcyon days of an idyllic pre-Civil Rights South shrouded in a romantic mist of nostalgia. Rather, The General is much more immanently, normatively American, a more fundamental reflection of Hollywood filmmaking that truly may be the story of American cinema. At the heart of The General, as alluded to, is the story of a passive figure who learns to actualize his identity, to become an agent in space and time and warp the world around him, including the film editing, to massage himself into a liberal causal agent, a manipulator of cause and consequence who acts upon the world and changes it for his betterment. The palindromic structure of The General enforces this clearly, with the train moving forward as Keaton’s agency fails him and then back to its starting point in a mirror-image reverse-narrative where he does suddenly command the film space.
Rather than embodying this vision purely or even primarily at the top-soil level of narrative, virtually all of The General’s gags and shot mechanics, its very cinematic bones, parodically enact the question of liberalism and Keaton’s struggle to put a lid on a world of cause and effect, of liberal agents and a world reactive to those agents, a world that initially seems a quandary to his character. Almost every joke in the film reflects his attempt to wrestle with technology and manipulate space and time around him to fulfill his narrative, with the train-space around him as obsessively mapped-out as Tati’s various satirical set-built cinematic modernities in Playtime. The temporal shift mid-way through the film – the shots and edits initially conspire against Keaton, only to become Keaton’s very tools of heroism, mastering cinema as he learns to navigate the world around him – inimitably tethers cinema itself to the ideology of American liberalism and its emphasis on practical, individual actors.
And why wouldn’t it? A temporal, mass-marketed visual lens on the world, cinema became a sort of de-facto tool for educating the masses on American moral structures, spreading the good word of normative values to the mostly impoverished and often disparate urban and rural masses of early Twentieth-Century America. Deathly afraid that the numerous immigrants to the nation would hold fast to tribalism and not self-define as Americans, national powers willed the cinema to become a battle-ground on which Americana was fought, a canvas of nation-connecting communion between individuals of various backgrounds, a sort of public educator. It wasn’t always this way; the first twenty years of cinema are often wondrously and deliciously at odds with the lived world around them. During this Cinema of Attractions era, film was often given to flights of fancy and bedeviled, phantasmagorical images that hardly conform to temporal narrative realms. But cinema’s increased popularity, and the desire to introduce it into the canon of high-art, soon increasingly favored not only persistently more-complicated narratives but tales in traditional, respectable modes, often historical stories, heroic images of the past meant to serve as prophecies of the future.
Or, more accurately, as conditioning-devices for the present, tools to quell disparate masses and sculpt them into “good Americans”, an essentially conservative project that has produced hundreds of genuine cinematic masterpieces but also codified the norms of filmmaking into the Classical Hollywood style, still foundational today at a narrative level even if the subject matter of film narratives are increasingly more permissive to standards of violence and sex and to other thematic materials not originally acceptable in Hollywood films. Which makes The General a curiously all-encompassing film, and one which provocatively sketches the connections between the obviously conservative “heroism” of the Lost Cause and the more “acceptable” and supposedly more “benign” heroism of any individual in any film who governs their narrative. In other words, an intelligent reading of the film complicates our image of cinema by questioning why we bemoan the film’s obvious conservatism at a narrative level but don’t criticize, or even analyze, its inauguration of a much more pervasive, and also pernicious, American tradition, that of fetishizing stories about characters who achieve and succeed as liberal agents rather than other forms of narratives which do not condition the worth of human characters on their capacity for success and achievement. In this framework, The General is a sort of epochal archetype, an ur-text of not only Americana and bootstrap individualism but American cinema and liberal value structures.
The General is not exactly critical of these norms, but it is perhaps the earliest, and one of the best, cinematic critiques of them, or expressions of them, one which crucially explores this tradition of not only film storytelling but film style, of the actual shot to shot progression of film images that structures time and space in liberal terms: for, around, and upon characters who alter the worlds around them. I do not know that The General is easily reconcilable or defensible as a political object, or whether its tragicomic awareness and self-evident mapping of these cinematic trends is essentially conservative or progressive. But one thing is for certain: it ensures that The General is inordinately revelatory, truly essential cinema, a kind of Rosetta Stone for American filmmaking. If Birth of a Nation famously crystallized American cinematic narrative norms, The General, arguably the most famous act of silent cinematic self-commentary, was among the first to truly understand what they mean.