It's OK to cheer for the south as long as there are no slaves.
When the average moviegoer thinks about silent comedy, two names spring to mind before all others. Those two men, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, are the faces of the silent era for a lot of people and, before The General, I had only experienced the work of the former. While people may see them as equals, I don't quite understand how that is possible. The General, while full of impressive film-making feats is far from the instant classic that I was expecting.
The General is loosely based on a true civil war story. Some damned Yankees stole a confederate train with the intent to trash the supply rails leading into the south. They were pursued by a lone man, in this case Buster Keaton, who carries a confederate flag like he owns it and single-handedly out-wits the Union soldiers while getting some action with a pretty southern lady. The story is Keaton directed and stared in the film, but it was a full-fledged box-office and critical disaster when it was released. The film pretty much ended Keaton's career and it took many years before it became the comedy classic that people talk about today. I can't tell if it was pity for saying a decent film was awful or just some sort of strange karma, but I can't understand why this movie is praised so highly.
The General is either a dull thriller or a bland comedy. Segments of the film are fairly exciting and some segments are fairly funny, but the film completely fails to make either the humor or the suspense completely work. Personally, I error on the side of comedy because I found a lot more to laugh at than to be excited by. The biggest problem I had with the humor though was that it was unfocused. Jokes didn't develop cleanly and the movie tried to do too much at once. Maybe this was an attempt to make it more exciting, but it just ended up feeling jumbled. This was punctuated by ended train chases with far too few gags to make them worth the time. I can only watch one train go after another train for so long before I want to move on. These things said, The General remains an impressive technological feat. The scope of what happens in the film and some of the special effects sequences are truly impressive for the time. The train crash alone is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a silent film.
Don't let my review lead you to believe that I didn't enjoy The General. There are some great moments and some very funny scenes, but I didn't find the comedy classic that I was expecting. While my experience with silent films may be limited, I find it hard to even talk about Charlie Chaplin in the same sentence as Buster Keaton. Maybe my opinion will change over time, but it will have to be with another film. The General has it's merits for people who like silent comedy, but it's not the kind of film that will convince fans of modern movies to go back and watch more silent films.