I was a bit disappointed and it sounds as if the contemporary critics were too. Natsuki even got bored. He's a fervent Buster Keaton fan, but by the end he was asking me to turn it off and saying it was too long. (Mind you, he is three years old.) We'd all been expecting a feature-length Buster Keaton comedy, which this isn't. It's not hilarious. It must have been death-defying to film, but they're train stunts rather than normal ones. I think you have to approach this as a proper film (albeit silent) with Buster Keaton in the lead and sometimes being funny.
It also won't have helped me that I knew the film's reputation as one of the greatest American films. Keaton himself called it his favourite. "I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made."
It's set during the American Civil War, with lots of money and love being spent on making it look perfect. (It was one of the most expensive films of the silent era.) The battle scenes at the end are basically a real battle. I also don't think Keaton bothered with models when a train had to plunge through a collapsing bridge into a river. He drove a real locomotive at a real bridge. (I'm not sure because my DVD doesn't have the best picture quality, but that's what it looked like to me. Hang on, let me check... ah, yes, I'm right. That was the most expensive single shot in any silent film and the wrecked locomotive became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years until it was salvaged for scrap in WW2.)
Keaton plays an engine driver who loves his country, his train and his girl (Marion Mack). When war is declared, he runs off to enlist, but gets turned down. Engine drivers are more valuable than soldiers. Go drive your train. Let other people get shot. Unfortunately Keaton's too stupid... um, patriotic to accept this and makes a nuisance of himself at the draft office trying to trick his way in anyway.
They see through him every time and send him packing. What comes next, though, is harsh. Everyone tells Mack that he was too much of a coward even to volunteer and she believes them. She's as jingoistic and macho as any of them. She orders him to be wearing a soldier's uniform next time they meet, or else forget about ever seeing her again.
Keaton also has the wrong hat and an unflattering hairstyle in this one. Imagine Hartnell's Doctor before his hair turned white.
The action begins here. The enemy steal Keaton's train (The General), with Mack on board. He goes to get them back. They're an army, but he's Buster Keaton. Foregone conclusion.
Most of this film is train chases, which are... okay. Train chases aren't as funny as you'd think. There are plenty of ways to disrupt them, especially if you've got Keaton's imagination, but basically they go in a straight line along tracks and there's not too much tension or comedy in them. They don't have the potential for independent movement and surprises that you'd have with cars, planes, bikes, unicycles or pretty much anything else. (Trams and river boats have a similar problem, though.) Mind you, I'm sure this material would have popped off the screen more had I bought a different DVD.
Keaton goes deep into enemy territory. At one point he's in the trees and the pouring rain, alone without help or food. This is harsher than a mere comedy. Keaton's playing it pretty straight. His character's in a bad situation, which is about to get genuinely threatening. (Much later there's a scene where an unconscious enemy is stirring on the floor behind Mack. That was similarly a bit menacing.) Besides, it's Keaton. I love Keaton the actor. Perhaps my favourite shot in the film is the one where he just looks left and right. It's his eyes.
Keaton rescues Mack, who atones for her earlier treatment of him by learning that slapstick is gender-blind. There's a bear trap and 1000 gallons of water with her name on them. The actress was surely a good sport.
This film's strongest bit is its finale. Keaton prevents a surprise attack by the enemy, but that just turns an ambush into a battle. You've got cannons, guns and people being shot dead as Keaton's talking to them... and Keaton the filmmaker is building gags around it. It's both funny and interesting. He's not making light of death and war. It's not black comedy as I imagine the term, yet he's killing people and it's funny. I don't remember seeing anything quite like that sequence. I was impressed, although that said he'd had plenty of practice in going dark with his two-reel shorts (sometimes to an almost disturbing extent).
It's based on a real Civil War incident, by the way, from 1862. There's also a 1956 Disney film based on it.
The film's an impressive technical achievement, I think. I think I need to rewatch it and reevaluate, because I think I might have my mind blown if I can see the trains, the battles and above all Keaton doing all his stunts live. (Also note the amazing period beards and moustaches.) However it's also clearly a proper film, with a strong motivation for its protagonist, an emotionally satisfying ending and beautifully clear silent storytelling. It also has some classic Keaton comedy sequences... but don't expect those to be the focus of the film.