Long acknowledged as `the' Keaton film - and the one that he chose to restart his career at Venice (if I remember correctly) - The General shows Keaton at his subtle, stone-faced best, although I wouldn't recommend it as the place to start discovering Keaton if you haven't done so yet. The shorts provide more of an accessible view of the quintessential Keaton as his death-defying best, performing stunts that these days - and even towards the end of his own career, when Hollywood wanted to protect his valuable name and image - are reserved as the domain of stuntmen.
He still dices with death in The General, notably when he throws one railway sleeper at another to pivot it from a railway line, while leaning backwards on the front of a moving-train (apparently with no way of preventing the train hitting the sleeper if he had missed), but this film is more notable for the way it easily maintains the viewer's attention using what is essentially a one-thread plot for over 100 minutes. Today, we've become accustomed to criss-crossing narratives and films being covered in ridiculous attention-seeking smatterings of special effects - to the detriment of the narrative - but Buster works things entirely the other way. And not just because special effects weren't at his disposal - as he shows in his short `The Cameraman', in which he pushed the moving image to places it had never been before.
Even outside the world of special effects, Keaton is much less the extrovert than his contemporaries Chaplin and Lloyd. Even though the straight-faced way he pulls off his gags is a huge part of his style, the quality of his material means that he really doesn't need to fill his films with the showboating, guff and common Laurel and Hardy style slapstick that others often relied on to pad out a film.
To put it bluntly, the film could be compared to a 80-minute chase with a bit of social history at the beginning a huge fight at the end and Buster getting the girl, but the way Keaton works the chase - the narrative that is woven into it; his wonderful on-screen persona; his marvellous directing (the shots of Buster on the train going in the opposite direction from the troops, and the point-of-view shots when Buster is trapped under a table in the enemy meeting house) - make the film much more than the sum of its parts.
Appreciable on myriad levels, The General deserves it place in the annals of film history.