Still Unequaled

The only thing to hold against The General’s Civil War depiction is the South triumphantly, jubilantly winning in the end. That’s a shame.

To note, The General makes everyone out to be a buffoon. The Confederates let someone steal an entire train. The North’s soldiers struggles to corral one guy – Keaton – who is less interested in the war than getting his train back. As a title card notes, Keaton’s character has two loves: that train and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), likely in that order.

The General makes a mockery of war, turning it into a conflict of chance, idiocy, and luck. Keaton plays a decidedly average civilian, only willing to join the war effort because his girl asks him to. It’s a show of masculinity, with Keaton willing to debase himself for laughs.

He’s laughed out of the war office, feels emasculated by his lack of muscle, and looks depressed when considering his short stature. That’s what makes General’s pro-southern perspective easier to take – war is caused by a bunch of men showing off and looking tough. In this case, white men who saw themselves as superior to an entire race. Shame on The General for not realizing as such.

The General isn’t only remembered for its willingness to push genre, comedy, or film forward

Once in battle, Keaton does nothing right. His successes come by way of happenstance. He’s a clumsy, lovable idiot who fires a cannonball straight up and it so happens to come down on a dam, flooding Union forces. He’s no fighter. He can barely dress himself. Agility is his saving grace.

This performance defined physical screen comedy; the tricks and timing remain in play today, and Keaton’s influence well considered in other writing. The General never slows, a film on the tracks at constant speed, marvelously showcasing Keaton’s daring at the expense of his own safety. It wasn’t until Jackie Chan slid down a lighting rig that anyone came along to challenge Keaton’s consistent loss of self-preservation.

It’s hard to think of another film so utterly daring (and stupid considering the risk) and magnificent as this. The General blows up an entire bridge, taking a steam engine with it. Keaton casually saunters out in front of an oncoming locomotive to pry a board from the tracks. Entire train cars go sailing from their tracks. Cannonballs go astray. There’s not a single visual effects shot. They just did it. Live. That’s pioneering cinema, and luckily, The General isn’t only remembered for its willingness to push genre, comedy, or film forward. It’s a story of an everyday male stuck in a world of alphas, using rapid-fire ingenuity – not brute force – to find his place in society, win a war, get the girl, and save the day.

Video

Early in Blu-ray’s life, Kino issued The General in HD. That transfer… well, had problems. This new 4K restoration by Cohen rates as one of the silent eras best efforts on Blu-ray, remarkable when imagining what nearly 100 years does to film stock. This looks new. There’s not a speck or scratch. It’s stable. Other than dropped frames, this presentation sports immaculate qualities of the best catalog offerings.

Bountiful resolution produces incredible levels of definition, standing out especially when showing images of plant life and overgrowth trackside. Sharpness shines. Weeds, tall grass, and trees define at levels truly unparalleled for a silent.

Fine grain strolls over the imagery, flawlessly resolved by the encode. Every frame of The General looks like projected film with no signs of errant manipulation or digital sharpening. How the clean-up of this print leaves no residue is a testament to the careful handling.

High contrast and depth create density through a beautiful gray scale. During a nighttime raid, black levels bring out their best, truly black and pure. Sunlight hangs over the rest, vividly so. What a marvel this transfer is.

Audio

Scoring comes courtesy of Carl David, offered in DTS-HD, primarily focused on the stereo channels. Being modern, the recording suffers no fidelity concerns. A soft low-end jumps out as needed.

Extras

On the same disc with another Keaton gem, Steamboat Bill, Jr., one extra focuses specifically on The General, a five-minute appreciation titled Reflections on The General with thoughts from Quentin Tarantino, Ben Mankewicz, and others. A trailer for this restoration’s release follows.

The General
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
5

Movie

Buster Keaton’s quintessential film, The General is soured only by its pro-Confederacy depiction as the rest is perfect cinematic comedy.

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