The General

I only knew a few things about the General before I sat down to watch it. I knew that it was a Buster Keaton movie, and Keaton was infamous for both his physical bravery and his comic underselling. I knew that it was considered his masterpiece. I knew that it involved a big train crash where they actually crashed a real train.

I didn't know that the movie was set in the Civil War, and that Keaton's character Johnnie Gray was fighting for the South.

On some level, the side of the war Gray is fighting on shouldn't make any difference. For one, his character isn't necessarily passionate about the cause - he only joins the rebel army because he wants to impress a girl who says she could never love someone who didn't volunteer. More importantly, the war is almost completely absent from the film - it grants some significance to the train, which is carrying military supplies, but there a minimal number of battle scenes and there is no direct discussion of politics. Gray could have been on either side, or it could have taken place ten years before or after the war, and it wouldn't have made much of a narrative difference.

Furthermore, I'm well aware that silent movies were made in a different era, and that requires a modern viewer to make some allowances. Also, I have to say that the complete absence of black characters (or white characters in blackface) means that the film is a lot less overtly racist than a lot of other movies from the time. 

But even with all that, it did bother me that Gray was a rebel. I understand that he's only doing what he's doing out of love, but he's doing it out of love for someone who doesn't strike me as being a good person. And regardless of his motives, his actions are still problematic. I want his side to lose; I don't want him to successfully take control of that train. The lack of dialogue in a silent movie means that there are a lot of empty spaces for your mind to wander, and my mind kept wandering back to thorny political questions which the movie was never going to address, and that kept reaffirming my ambivalence about what I was seeing.

The biggest risk you face when you watch a silent movie is that it will seem old fashioned, but that generally means that the jokes will seem too corny, or the acting too broad. In this case, it means something different. Here it meant that I was watching something that was on the wrong side of history. That doesn't necessarily take away from how audacious the train crash scene is, and that doesn't invalidate Keaton's crackerjack comic timing. But it does make the film seem dated in a way that many of Keaton's other films aren't. After all, Sherlock Jr. never fought to preserve slavery; all he did was solve crimes.

Winner: Draw

The General on IMDB