Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #18 on the list: The General (1926).
Buster Keaton only has one film on the AFI’s list: The General. Strangely, it places within the top 20, even though it wasn’t included on the original list from 1998. Obviously, the voters saw a key figure of the silent era missing and course-corrected by pointing to his most celebrated work, and The General may indeed be his most conventionally thrilling film, but it’s far from his best. It follows a train engineer’s adventure as he sets out to rescue the woman he loves after she’s kidnapped by soldiers during the Civil War. The first third of the film is essentially one long train chase, with Johnnie Gray (Keaton) overcoming obstacles (oftentimes in amusing and/or inventive ways) in attempts to keep up with the fleeing locomotive. But eventually, he is forced off his train and has to hole up in an enemy camp. There are some amusing moments in this section of the film, and it allows the plot to move forward, but The General has a more prominent narrative than most of Keaton’s work, and it’s to its detriment.
His best work is in individual set pieces and stunts, usually thinly linked by a simple premise. Conversely, The General places more emphasis on the events of the war, and occasionally intersperses amusing moments and exciting stunts. The other, more apparent, aspect in which the film doesn’t hold up is that Keaton’s protagonist sits firmly on the wrong side of history. Though the film was adapted from a memoir of real events, the fact that Johnnie is ostensibly fighting for the Confederacy can’t even be excused as historical accuracy because Keaton made the decision to flip the Union and Confederate sides from the book, thinking audiences wouldn’t want to sympathize with a protagonist in the Union army. It’s a blight on a film that already doesn’t rank among his, nor the era’s, best.
Does It Belong on the List?
Obviously not, and though I’d normally use this section to lavish Sherlock, Jr. with deserved praise (see: my rave in QFF Day 2: Feel Good Fest), the American Film Institute has an asinine 60-minute minimum runtime requirement that precludes it.