A lot of the all-time great films are pretty problematic–Birth of a Nation, The Searchers, Manhattan, we could go on. To say the least, values change. How do we deal with that?
This isn’t usually a conversation we have when discussing Buster Keaton, but we should. Of the three great silent comedians, Charlie Chaplin was the only one to not resort to blackface humor (at least to my knowledge, not having seen all the shorts), whereas lots and lots of Keaton and Harold Lloyd films do. That doesn’t exist in The General, which is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s beautifully shot. The scene with a dejected Keaton riding the rail rod as the train disappears out of sight is great. The action is good with the burning bridge. It’s just an iconic film. Plus it was shot outside of Cottage Grove, Oregon, so I get some Oregon scenery. But it was also a film not only made to promote a Confederate view of history, Keaton actually changed the story to do this. The original story was about a Union railroad man. But it was the 1920s and everyone in America loved the Confederacy. So Keaton changed it.
For most of the film, you can ignore the Confederate part of it. But toward the end, when Keaton redeems himself through fighting and he runs and picks up the Confederate flag to wave it in the air, well, that’s a revolting moment. It’s hard to watch. It’s tremendously sad. It ruins the movie. I’ll still watch it every year or two, probably for the rest of my life. But my heart hurts when I see it now because I know that is coming and then it comes.
Incidentally, there was a really good essay on Keaton in the New York Review of Books recently. Check it out.