Oh, Buster, you’ve let me down.
The General itself is a true-to-form Keaton picture, and yes, I did laugh in places, as I always do at Buster Keaton’s work now. In fact, a short while ago I’d have been totally fine with this. The usual stuff is there – trying to impress a girl, the obstacle thrown into his path, daring stunts and hijinks ensue. And he is is usual skilled self.
In this case, the premise is that Keaton is a young engineer on the train line between Tennessee and Georgia in 1861, equally devoted to both his favorite locomotive (this is actually the “General” of the title) and his girl, Annabelle, who lives in one of the towns on his usual route.
However, one afternoon as he is visiting her, her brother comes home with the news of the attack at Fort Sumter, and both father and son resolve to enlist and go to war. Keaton’s girl turns to him with starry eyes and says that he should enlist as well, and he dashes off to be first at the enlistment office – but when they learn he is an engineer, they turn him down, believing him more useful in his civilian position. As he dejectedly walks away he passes Annabelle’s father and brother, standing in line to enlist, and they try to wave him into line with them; he just shakes his head and walks off. They interpret this as cowardice on his part, and when Annabelle hears their opinion, she breaks up with Keaton.
That’s just the setup. The meat of things happens a year later, with Annabelle boarding his train to visit her father in a military hospital. But unbeknownst to them both, a team of enemy spies has secretly boarded the train, and when Keaton stops the train for a lunch break en route, they seize the locomotive and one of its freight cars – with Annabelle unexpectedly inside, hunting for something in her luggage – and take off, headed for their camp. Keaton spots them and gives chase.
Cue the hijinks. Which in this case involve pursuit by handcar, mishaps with a cannon, and rides on the cowcatcher. There’s even a second stretch of hijinks after Keaton has managed to overhear an enemy plot, rescue Annabelle and reclaim his engine, and is racing back home ahead of the enemy, trying to save Annabelle and warn the home troops in time. And it ends happily, with Keaton rewarded for his bravery and Annabelle happily back by his side.
Keaton based this on an actual incident from the Civil War, in which a team of Union spies actually did sneak onto a train and hijack it during a meal break, destroying the tracks in their wake and thus severing an important communication and freight line for the Confederates. But when dramatizing this story, Keaton made an executive decision.
He made the Confederates the good guys in this movie.
Not for political reasons, most likely. In fact, Keaton was most likely just responding to the collective opinion of the day – that the Confederates had been little more than underdogs, ultimately doomed and harmless, who’d just made a mistake. Making the underdogs the heroes of his comedy would be funnier, he reasoned, so instead of playing one of the Union spies and telling the story from that angle, he cast himself as an underdog Confederate wannabe who wins at the end. But this was still only a mercenary outlook at worst, rather than a sympathy for the south; but there isn’t a filmmaker alive who hasn’t at least considered giving the public what they want so they can sell more tickets.
Still, watching this film in 2017, shortly after the Charlestonville riots and the furor over Conferderate monuments, made me pretty uneasy; especially when Keaton tags along with the Confederate Army towards the end, riding bravely into battle behind the Stars-and-Bars. He even serves as flagbearer during the ensuing clash at one point – it’s a moment played for laughs, still, with Keaton marching along a bluff carrying the flag and inadvertently stepping on the commander’s toe or something. But – it was Buster Keaton carrying the Stars and Bars. And I didn’t like seeing it.
The shifting impact of history ultimately wasn’t anything Keaton couldn’t control, and I get that. It isn’t anything he could have forseen either. The only thing a filmmaker can do – or any artist can do, for that matter – is work with the knowledge that they have available to them at any given moment. And at the particular moment Keaton was filming, the Confederates were being seen as noble but doomed. The very statues that people protest today were just being put up at about the time Keaton was filming. The NAACP was just getting off the ground, Plessy V. Ferguson was the rule of the day, and it was still four years before the Scottsboro Boys ran into their own trouble on a train. Yes, Keaton could have made a principled stand, but he would have been a very rare individual indeed if he had; he may have very well felt that by choosing to not make his heroes plantation owners, he was taking a sympathetic stance.
And yet I still couldn’t get away that this cultural narrative later lead to Gone With The Wind and then to Brown V. Board of Education, and then to Selma, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and then Dylann Roof, and then to Richard Spencer and his thugs in Charlottesville. Keaton couldn’t have forseen that in 1927. But those are all things I did see in 2017. And just like a filmmaker can only bring the knowledge they have at a given moment, a spectator also carries their own baggage, from their own era and their own time. And that can always affect how you see something.
Sorry, Buster. It’s not you, it’s me.