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Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South

Still from Buster Keaton’s “The General.”

Once you start pulling confederate heroes off their plinths it’s difficult to know where to stop.

The Robert E. Lee bronze from Charlottesville may have been chucked on the scrap heap, but what about another general, not a human but the machine piloted by Buster Keaton in the best ever movie about the gray and blue done in black and white?  Made in 1926, The General recouped little more than half of its budget of three-quarters of a million dollars, much of it spent on the spectacular train wreck near the movie’s end that is often claimed as the most expensive scene in the history of the silents. The film marked Keaton’s biggest financial failure, but it is now his most frequently screened.

Its deadpan humor, inventive flair, virtuosic stunts, perfect comic timing, and chugging pace make for an unbeatable 75 movie minutes. But there is also no denying that The General traffics in moldy, pernicious myths of the heroic south—of genteel generals and their doomed armies driven to defend their homeland by honor and patriotism rather than on account of any real allegiance to slavery. They are dashing and courageous, even in the face of unwinnable odds.

Keaton casts himself against type: he’s the loveable antithesis of southern manhood. These gallant freedom fighters mount martial steeds, he rides an iron horse. Where they are tall and mustachioed, he is short and clean-shaven, his famous stone face a miraculously expressive instrument against the disapproving miens of the gentry.

It’s true that Keaton pokes fun at the inflated sense of Old Southern duty at the opening of The General. Keaton’s character, the Engineer, is on the verge of proposing to his sweetheart (Marion Mack), daughter of a wealthy family, when news of the attack on Fort Sumter derails his bid. She will not marry Keaton unless he enlists, but he is refused an officer’s commission, much to the shame of his sweetheart and her male kin. The war effort needs Buster at the helm of his locomotive, and so does the movie.

A Union commando unit steals his train and bolts north across the battle lines. The brutes in blue (actually, they’ve illegally donned gray for their raid) do not play by the rules: they want to win even if victory is achieved through dishonorable means. They even go so far as to kidnap Keaton’s beloved. Southern women aren’t safe against these barbarians.

Keaton gives chase in his locomotive, believing that he’s got a full contingent of troops in the cars behind.  But the pin linking the wagons and his locomotive is inadvertently pulled, and Keaton must take on a large chunk of the Federal army single-handedly. When he eventually rescues Mack, she proves to be a feminine handicap rather than any help at all.

Blackguard Union soldiers; southern belles under threat; Romantic rebels who defend their honor: these tropes might seem to disqualify The General as family entertainment. Though no blackfaces are seen in the movie it must by definition glorify the slaveholding south, even if its brilliantly bumbling hero couldn’t be farther from the Robert E. Lee type.

One could try to rehabilitate The General as a sort of send up of the D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. After all, the bigoted auteur’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Intolerance was parodied by Keaton in his Three Ages of 1923.

But that critical sleight-of-hand can’t relieve The General from the siege of historical forces that are finally beginning to lay waste to the myths of the noble south.

Given the rapidly faltering fortunes of the Confederacy’s legacy—its last stand being led by that military mastermind, Donald Trump—one fears for the fate of its most beloved General. Bronze Lee and his horse can be carted off and melted down, but not Keaton’s engine!

Its furnace well-stocked, the celebrated silver-screen locomotive came chugging into Ithaca, New York last Saturday afternoon as part of the Cornell Cinema’s Ithakids Festival. Ithaca is a place proud of its progressive credentials:  a bastion of blue encircled by the red that is Upstate New York. Frederick Douglass spoke here several times before the Civil War, and Ithaca and environs hid slaves stealing to Canada.  The graveyards of the region are full of veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Nowadays it would seem difficult for a right-thinking place like Ithaca to countenance any burnishing of the Confederacy’s legacy, even if in the Trump-supporting hinterland one can see the rebel battle flag on pickups and flying from flagpoles alongside mobile homes. In rural New York the Stars-and-Bars have supplanted the Bloody Shirt.

The Cornell Cinema filled with kids and their parents though not, I suspect, from the impoverished periphery but from within the Enlightened city-state of Ithaca.  It was a pleasure to see them there, to delight in their delight before they are enslaved by their iPhones and other small screens. Originally home to the university’s drama club, the cinema was built in 1925 before the advent of the talkies. Its sumptuous, if somewhat dilapidated auditorium evokes a bygone era. Just how bygone that era is can be seen in the recent decision of the Cornell Student Assembly to cut off support for the cinema:  Why pay for a such a luxury when movies can be consumed in the palm of the hand, the more solitary the experience the better?

Keaton’s General pulled into the Cornell station to an enthusiastic welcome, but how was the message to be imparted that, for all the incandescent gags and belly laughs, the character played by the loveably impassive and irrepressibly acrobatic Keaton was on the side of evil not good? Even would-be leftist parents of Ithaca wouldn’t dare spoil an afternoon out with the young’uns with a disclaiming lecture.

It was up to the Alloy Orchestra to save the day. Based in Boston, this trio, as limber in its scoring as Keaton is on the screen, has been coming to Cornell Cinema for nearly two decades and has played many great silent movies here over the years.

As the cinema itself originally presented plays not films, there is a large stage in front of the screen; to its left was keyboardist, Roger Miller, to the right, a long battery of junk percussion to be banged on and cajoled. The rack of implements was anchored by an antique snare drum that lent the military lash to the battle and steam-driven hiss to the railroad chase.  Terry Donahue and the trio’s director, Ken Winokur were ever-resourceful in their deployment of their unlikely arsenal, while also providing melodic commentary with, respectively, a sometimes reluctant accordion and a shopworn clarinet.

The Alloy’s score militantly renounces the sweeping grandeur of Max Steiner’s soundtrack for Gone with the Wind. Where Steiner was maximalist, the Alloy is minimalist. Dixie is never whistled. The onscreen romance almost elicits a sentimental melody near the start and at the denouement, but not quite. One could almost hear occasional harmonic intimations of noble yearning from the keyboard, but if so, these were ironic and irreverent, even more so against the clutter and bang, shimmer and whir from the other side of the stage. The edgy arabesques of clarinet and accordion’s periodic complaint encourage not identification but distance, even as these sonorities urge on Keaton’s inimitable antics. Combat is imbued with energy but not honor.

The masterful score matches, even seems to motivate the action but does so uncannily as if from a parallel post-industrial world.  Yet these strains of alienation never dampen the comedy, indeed help it sparkling and snap.

General Lee looked towards the past from atop his Charlottesville mount. Stoked by the Alloy’s ingeniously recycled fuel, Keaton’s General races into the future.

 

 

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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