There is something hypnotic about Buster Keaton’s face. Despite the lack of expression, it centres the astounding physical stunts taking place all around. The Great Stone Face is a blank canvas onto which we can paint our unalloyed joy, a strange oasis of calm in the middle of a raging storm of orchestrated chaos. Now with a sparkling 4K restoration and new Carl Davis score, The General has returned to delight existing fans and charm new ones.
Given the sheer pleasure his masterpiece elicits, there is a sad irony surrounding this tale of railroad engineer Johnnie Gray and his mad chase back and forth along the track to save his beloved woman and locomotive. Keaton’s finest moment was also the cause of his downfall. The General received only a tepid reaction from audiences and critics on first release. The subsequent cost to the studio saw his independence as a filmmaker shackled, the start of a steady decline that led to the onset of alcoholism and breakdown of his family. But so good is this film, it still stands tall nearly 90 years later.
Credit must go to the restoration team. There is nothing more beautiful than the crisp black and white splash of light. Here, the screen positively glows in what Keaton considered his finest film. Based on a real incident during the American Civil War, Gray is rejected by the Confederate army and then branded a coward by his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and her family. The theft of The General, his locomotive, by Union soldiers, and from his perspective the almost fortunate kidnapping of Annabelle, provides Johnnie with the perfect opportunity to prove he’s a hero after all.
The vast majority of the action takes place out on the railroad. Keaton is utterly fearless risking life and limb for his craft. He clambers across carriages, falls between them and crawls to the front of the engine. He swings off cannons, falls off bicycles and stumbles down ravines. But he’s no reckless gambler. All the risks feed into a carefully choreographed story. This is as much a perfectly paced thriller as it is comedy.
Yet exciting as it may be, it’s still known primarily as a comedy, and his control throughout is intoxicating. Right from the start, I don’t want to leave his safe hands, so capable of utilising a wide array of techniques. Not afraid to milk quick laughs, Gray will stumble off porches and trip himself up with loose weaponry. Elsewhere, other sequences are carefully constructed over a period of time. As the Union soldiers’ train draws closer, a series of cuts prolong the tension. Off the train, a lovely little routine at the enlistment office mixes pure comedy with desperation.
If for some odd reason you’ve not yet been won over, there’s the scale of the entire enterprise. No wonder the budget exploded when he’s dismantling and then blowing up whole trains. It’s a fitting finale, an iconic set piece that has rarely been matched. Such was the impact; the site of his extravagance became a tourist attraction until the shattered locomotive was stripped for scrap metal in the Second World War. It still stands out even in the age of special effects laden blockbusters that cost the equivalent of a small country.
The General is that rare film packed full of magnificent moments that also manages to be more than the sum of its parts. With this restoration we get another chance to experience the way beautiful comedy and exhilarating action combine to create pure cinema. If you’ve seen it before, it’s never looked this good. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for.
The General is playing at the BFI Southbank until Feb 8th. Full details can be found here.