The General

July 07, 2004

The General

Buster Keaton is considered a comic genius. Having finally seen his most famous movie, I can see why folks praise him so highly.

Good stuff, great physical comedy, a good enough story, and they really DO drive a railroad train off a bridge and into a ravine. Gotta love that.

What I found striking about the movie was the way that it reflected one of the common sentiments of the 1920s. The story is simple: a railroad engineer loves his train and loves a lady. When the civil war breaks out he tries to enlist but is told he is more valuable driving trains than carrying a gun; she decides he is a coward and refuses to have anything to do with him. A year later, the opposing army has a clever attack plan that involves stealing a train and wrecking the railroad, thus disrupting supplies. They steal our hero's train, his lady happens to be on board the part they steal; he tries to rescue her, discovers the enemies plans, returns safely after another wonderful chase sequence, rallies the troops, and leads them to victory over the invaders. At the end, the old general rewards him by inducting him into the army as an officer, and the lady now loves him a lot. All is well.

Now, that basic plot summary works well enough regardless of whether our hero is fighting for the union or the confederacy. Sure, Confederate women were more aggressive about using shame and honor to pressure men to join the war; sure, the Union was on the offensive for most of the war. But still, thought about a unified nation "our side needs you" was more common in the Union than in the Confederacy in the Spring of 1861 -- much of the movie's confederate national awareness is a little jarring, for most Secessionists thought in terms of state citizenship long before they thought of citizenship in their new nation.

As you have gathered, our hero is a Confederate. And, Buster Keaton clearly chose to make his hero a Confederate - the story works well enough either way. Why do it? Well, the hero is a little guy and you want the audience to root for him. So, lets make him a member of the more sympathetic side. In the 1920s, that means you dress him in grey.

The Gettysburg movie deified both Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I have not seen Gods and Generals. I suspect that the more sympathetic characters in that will be the Southern generals, if only because they better fit Michael Shaara's image of honor-bound gentlemen awkwardly adjusting themselves to industrialized warfare.

Still, by and large these days the sympathetic underdog is not a Confederate soldier. He is also not usually a Union soldier, or at least not a white male. If The General were remade today, I somehow suspect that Buster Keaton's character would be cast as a black man living in the North and forbidden to join the army because of his race.

And, the train would explode when it went off the ravine. In fact, there would be a lot more explosions, and someone would find and use a machine gun. Modern hollywood action adventures all have to have a machine gun in them. I don't know why.

Posted by Red Ted at July 7, 2004 10:35 PM | TrackBack
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