For me, as for many, Buster Keaton is one of cinema’s very greatest artists – up there with Renoir, Hitchcock, Welles, Bergman and other giants – though Keaton has the advantage of being much funnier. The General is arguably his finest achievement, even more impressive than enduring masterpieces like Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and Our Hospitality (1923); many rate it the greatest comedy movie ever, outranking even… well, The Big Lebowski (1998).
What makes it so special? Absolutely everything. The elegant athleticism, expressive subtlety and sheer physical and facial beauty of Keaton the actor, of course. But then there’s also the film’s visual beauty, grounded in Keaton’s meticulously accurate recreation of America during the civil war. This ensures that we believe in and care about the events depicted on screen, which means The General succeeds not only as comedy but as engrossing, suspenseful action. There’s also the pleasingly symmetrical storyline, with Buster’s railway driver first pursuing the soldiers who’ve stolen his engine (and his beloved), and then being pursued by the enemy in the other direction. It is, moreover, a shining example of brilliantly inventive but never flashy film direction. Great art, but also ageless entertainment.