Back in May, I got myself a ticket to a screening of Buster Keaton’s “The General” (1926), taking place at London’s Rich Mix. It was an extra special night as the film was to be accompanied by a new score composed by experimental Derbyshire band Haiku Salut (a band who’s previous work I have liked a lot).
I am still very new to live film scores and, in fact, silent cinema in general. I have always been a bit hesitant of the idea as I had my preconceptions of what the experience would be like. Ignorantly, I thought that all “old-fashioned” comedy was heavy on slapstick, and that the live scores would simply be musicians trumpetting in time with numerous pratfalls. But going into this screening, I needn’t have had these worries. I should have known that that is not Haiku Salut’s style, and neither is it Keaton’s.
Though the film is a comedy (This project was commissioned initially as part of the BFI Comedy Genius season by Nottingham Contemporary back in 2017) “The General” is also a romantic, wartime adventure. Set during the American Civil War, Keaton acts as Johnnie Gray, a young man who wishes to impress his sweetheart by enlisting, but is turned away because his skills as a passionate train driver are too valuable. Misunderstanding why he didn’t join the fight, his fiance Annabelle (Marion Mack) rejects him. Heartbroken and ashamed, he runs away, back to the railroad.
A year later, Annabelle travels to see her war-wounded father. Unbeknownst to them both, she rides the train (The General) on which Johnnie is now working. When it is hijacked and stolen with Annabelle still inside, Johnnie attempts to rescue his beloved locomotive and unintentionally, whilst doing so, he is able to prove to Annabelle that he isn’t a coward after all.
Whilst it took a little getting used to that Johnnie was unfortunately fighting on the side of the South (I cringed at shots of the confederate flag), Keaton still manages to play a likeable hero. Hair coiffed, eyes large, Johnnie is a bit of a “soft boy” who cares deeply about two things: the railroad, and his sweetheart. In the opening scene, he gifts his love a photograph of himself standing dorkily beside his train. Before the action begins, they sit and chat on a sofa, in a way which I found refreshingly normal; what you see in this scene is that Johnnie and Annabelle really do share a sweet connection.
Whilst perhaps I am projecting my own interests a little, I definitely felt I saw a subtle subversion of masculinity within the story. Due to his inability to enlist, Johnnie is seen as less of a man by both himself and those around him. At the registration, a whole section is dedicated to the question: is he man enough to fight? He is puzzled and poses, patting his chest and squeezing his arms, examining his peers in line to sign up, comparing himself in strength and stature. Due to the lack of explanation of why he isn’t to be taken on, Johnnie leaves feeling ashamed and emasculated. This is only made worse by the reaction of Annabelle’s father, which in turn leaves him shunned by Annabelle herself. Despite these masculine traits being held to high esteem by those around him, it is in fact his role as a train driver, which he cares about with such tenderness, that ends up saving Annabelle, The General, and himself – as well as ultimately leading to a victory for the Southern army (if only this story was told from a different perspective!).
What I particularly enjoyed about the film was that the narrative and humour is not only powered by the momentum of the action and the impressive stunts (After all, most of the film is a train chase). What kept me hooked was the emotional connection you feel with the characters. There feels like an urgency to get the two back together and to fix Johnnie’s shattered self esteem; when there is slapstick, it is funny because despite the sincerity of Johnnie’s attempts at being the hero, it doesn’t always quite go quite how he planned.
I think that the music of Haiku Salut played a huge role in creating this atmosphere. Having seen snippets of other “The General” scores on YouTube, they do fall slightly more in line with my expectations; musicians largely attempt to capture the sounds that we would expect to hear as trains race across the tracks. Haiku Salut’s approach feels closer to a modern idea of to film scoring. Rather than trying to create sounds to match the pictures we see, Haiku Salut’s work creates music that match the emotions of the characters, and help us to feel a connection to them. Using their trademark electronic sounds – on stage at Rich Mix the women performed with laptops and keyboards – their music tones down elements of the humour that could come across as “old-fashioned”. It does not draw attention to slapstick moments via the use of sound, making it subtler and more palatable to a modern audience (or certainly, me, who doesn’t care much for slapstick).
When listening to the standalone album (released last Friday) it’s easy to separate the music from the film. Though it tells a story, it isn’t explicit… this isn’t Peter and The Wolf. Momentum builds up in some tracks such as “Train Steal”, “Deserters” and “Cannon”, where looped rhythms create the atmosphere of chase and battle. However, they avoid falling into foley artistry territory. Other songs slow down and focus on the romantic atmosphere through the use of more tender melodies, such as “Loves”, “The Escape” and “Reunited”. When listening to this album, you can create your own romantic adventure in your mind that is detached entirely from Keaton’s film.
That said, when you place the two together, something really beautiful happens that is a testament to both Keaton’s film and Haiku Salut’s music. It is an inspired and unique combination of the old and the new that is absolutely worth catching if it comes to a city near you. If not, the album and film are both available online now!