Buster Keaton Penelope Houston - Essay

Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The hero of The General is a little engine driver, turned down by the Confederate recruiting sergeants, dismissed as a coward by his girl, who, in pursuit of his stolen engine, penetrates the Unionist lines, spies on a military conference, rescues the girl, recovers the engine and steams back in triumph to the Confederate encampment. The exploits are preposterously heroic; their manner of execution is brisk but detached. Confronted with the outlandish or the alarming—the disappearance of his train, the discovery that in setting fire to the railway bridge he has placed himself on the wrong side of the blaze, or that, in his grand scheme to fire on the enemy train, he has directed the cannonball straight into the cab of his own engine—Keaton remains imperturbable. This, one feels, is how he expects things to behave; there is no need for undue alarm. It is out of this laconic, matter-of-fact acceptance, this obstinate persistence in effort, however misguided, this untroubled, dream-like logic, that Keaton builds his comedy technique. The film advances in a series of triumphs and setbacks, with each check stimulating him to fresh activity, fresh displays of ingenuity. The train puffs past first the retreating Confederate troops, then the advancing Yankees, while its driver, sublimely unaware, busily saws wood for the engine. It runs steadily towards an obstacle across the line while Keaton, spread-eagled against the front of the engine, comes as close to trepidation as we ever see him before he...

(The entire section is 622 words.)