Screened at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and featuring the world premiere of a new score performed live by five-piece band The Blue Grassy Knoll, The General is Keaton’s most ambitious film: a 79 minute epic set in the American Civil War and featuring everything a film buff could ask for, including inventive camera work, vividly realised set pieces, dramatic chases, romance, explosions and some truly spectacular stunts.
The plot sees Keaton’s typically deadpan train driver, Johnny Gray, rejected by his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) when she mistakenly believes him a coward who will not enlist in the Confederate army. A year later, Annabelle is accidentally kidnapped by a group of Union spies led by Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) when they steal the other great love of Johnny’s life, his steam locomotive, The General. When Johnny commandeers another train and sets out after them, a vividly staged chase ensues, featuring a carefully choreographed and gradually escalating series of train-based stunts that leave even contemporary audiences gobsmacked and amazed.
Despite its spectacular scale and vivid scenes, The General was a flop upon its initial release, with trade journal Variety calling it ‘far from funny’. Today it is considered a classic of the silent era, praised by leading critics and filmmakers alike for its audacity, inventiveness and brio. Indeed, the late Orson Welles said of The General that it was the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.
Friday night’s screening of this silent movie classic was made all the more entertaining by The Blue Grassy Knoll’s new score: a playful composition that highlighted the film’s comic elements and enriched every moment, using such instruments as banjo, double bass, cello, drums, piano accordion and guitar to evoke everything from explosions and thunderstorms to whistling bullets and tender conversations.
Displaying impeccable timing and musical flare, the quintet’s accomplished musical dexterity and striking original compositions added immensely to this already remarkable viewing experience, ensuring that The General remains a vibrant, vital and exciting film 83 years after its original cinematic release.
Film rating: Four stars
Original score: Four and a half stars