Should We Be Rooting For Buster Keaton in "The General?"
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
To anyone familiar with early film history you definitely know Buster Keaton since he is widely considered to be one of the kings of silent film era. And rightfully so, he directed over three dozen films and starred in even more during the course of his nearly seven decade long career. Out of all these works one sticks out among the rest and that is the 1926 silent Civil War comedy, The General, where Keaton both directed and starred in the lead role.
The film tells the story of Johnnie Gray and his comedic journey with his fiancée, Annabella Lee and his locomotive, The General. The film is typically around 75 minutes long although it varies based on the version. It is often regarded as Keaton's "masterpiece" and one of the finest pictures of the silent film era and among the greatest of all time. This year will mark the 95th anniversary of The General and with that milestone just around the corner it's time to take a look back at Buster Keaton's film, specifically one key detail about the main character and remember that the "golden age of Hollywood" was not always golden.
So what could possibly be so wrong about this film if it's considered to be one of the greatest of all time? What could be so harmful about a man chasing a train? Well, for those who don't know or have not seen the film in a long time, the problem lies in Keaton's lead role. In the film, Johnnie's fiancée, Annabella tells him that she will leave him if he does not join the army. Here's where things get dicey because The General takes place during the Civil War era in Georgia, meaning Johnnie is a confederate soldier.
So it begs the question: how can we, in good conscience, root for a confederate solider? How can we feel sympathy for and laugh with a soldier fighting for the preservation of slavery? It is no secret that the early days of Hollywood that Buster Keaton was apart of wasn't exactly known for being diverse and is a far cry from what would be considered socially acceptable today. The General serves as a perfect example of how normalized white supremacy was in America and how its presence still remains since this movie is often referred to as a "masterpiece" and one of the best pictures of the silent film era. But then again, what's the alternative? Can we simply just forget about Keaton's film and pretend like it never existed? Well here's where the problem lies, without Buster Keaton films there is a good chance that half of the films we know today wouldn't exist. In other words, pretending that Buster Keaton's films never existed would be like trying to erase the Beatles from music history. At the peak of the film industry's popularity during the silent age, Keaton was essentially seen as America's Charlie Chaplin, although to imply he didn't make a separate name for himself would be completely false.
So what is there to do about films like The General? As terrible as the subject matter might be I still believe it is important to remember these films because of their sheer contributions to the industry and entertainment history overall. Simultaneously it is also crucial that the popularity of films like these do not diminish the grave subject matter they try to gloss over. In the meantime if you're looking for a good silent comedy with smarter subject matter and none of the guilt, I would suggest Modern Times.