The General

AFI Rank: #18 (10th anniversary ranking)
Year Released: 1927
Director: Buster Keaton
Actors: Buster Keaton

It's quite fascinating that The General, a silent film featuring Buster Keaton, wasn't at all listed on the first AFI Top 100 listing. However, when the AFI came out with their 10th anniversary listing, somehow The General had not only jumped onto the list but vaulted all the way up to the #18 position. The only similar-era movie which then came off was Frankenstein. I wonder if the voters were trying to do a delicate balancing act - appreciating the older works that had great meaning, while also not rewarding items for just "being old". I do think The General deserves to be on the list, not just because it's a good "old" movie but also because it's a good MOVIE, period.

Yes, it's silent - but sometimes there isn't a great need for words. Think of modern action movies that have long stretches without dialogue, where we are simply caught up in what is going on. Watching The General is like watching a great martial arts movie - but without wire-work, without safety nets, and without special effects. Buster Keaton is really doing these things. He really is leaping around on a moving train. He really is taking his life into his hands. And he does it with an effortless ease.

Sure, from a "balanced view" stance we might have a few issues. There's only one woman. Her role is to be an idiot and make rash assumptions about Keaton's character, and then to do stupid things along the way. We don't get much variety in characters other than that. But we have to accept that from many movies of that era (and, sadly, of many movies of the modern era too). This is a story about one man taking on the world.

We have to remember, too, that where in modern times we are swept away by sweeping landscapes in Lord of the Rings, back in 1927 they were equally swept away from the black-and-white landscapes they saw. To that audience, those landscapes were beautiful and unseen. This was the top of the line for them. It was their high definition and 3D all wrapped up together. And it was an escape from troubling economic times even worse (if it can be imagined) than what we have now.

Well recommended.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100