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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this great silent-comedy epic shows the Civil War from a Southern perspective and doesn't condemn (or even touch upon) issues of slavery or secession; it's just not an issue. There is slapstick violence -- never bloody or extreme -- involving cannon fire and explosions and some soldiers shot dead by a sniper (who gets accidentally stabbed dead). As with virtually all Hollywood silent cinema, some of the story requires reading intertitles. Video versions of this movie (including online downloads) vary in picture quality and enthusiasm of the soundtrack music; some DVDs include other silent short subjects as "extras," which might contain questionable elements (black-face minstrel jokes, for example). A recent movie called The General also exists -- but it's a brutal UK mob drama, utterly unrelated to this one, and rated R.
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What's the story?
In a comical takeoff inspired (loosely) by a well-known, true story of the Civil War, Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a young locomotive engineer in the South at the outbreak of hostilities, devoted to his sweetheart Annabelle (Marian Mack) and an engine nicknamed "the General." Johnnie tries repeatedly to join the Confederate Army to fight but is turned down unfairly -- which makes him an outcast with Annabelle and her family. A year later, though, Union spies dressed as Confederates steal the General (kidnapping Annabelle as well), intending to tear up strategically important tracks while supplying a Northern invasion. Johnnie chases after them on the rails and, with cleverness and some lucky accidents, wreaks havoc on the frustrated Yankee enemy.
Is it any good?
This thoroughly entertaining classic is ranked among film historians as one of the greatest comedies ever -- perhaps one of the best films ever made, simple as that. Yet it was not a tremendous success when first released, and in some territories in the American South there were protests that Buster Keaton had dared to make a mockery of something so solemn and sacred as the Civil War -- never mind that the film is nothing but respectful about the Confederacy and the resolve of Rebel troops (this was pretty much the standard attitude from Hollywood, with movie vehicles starring Shirley Temple, the Little Rascals and, of course, Gone With the Wind being most generous towards the South).
After the romanticized opening, the film becomes a delightful thrill-a-minute chase adventure, with the running time of an average kids'-cartoon feature. Keaton's trademark split-second timing and grace under pressure are in standout form as the beleaguered, underdog hero. It's important to remember that this used no miniature models or CGI. When a train wrecks in a particular spectacular gag it's the real thing, and Buster Keaton's crew had only one chance to get it right.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Buster Keaton and his career, as the greatest slapstick comic-genius of silent film -- though fans will argue strenuously that Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or others deserve that crown. Talk with grandparents about their favorite old-time comedians.
Mention that Keaton does all his own stunts, and there were no camera tricks (and no retakes allowed!) in some of the huge-scale gags.
If it's hard to get modern kids to take a chance on a nearly century-old silent film like this, tell them none other than Jackie Chan admires Buster Keaton and calls him his role model. How are the two comedians similar?
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