I don’t know everything about film. Far from it. There are big names I have only recently become acquainted with and many I had never heard of before starting this blog. One name I had been missing out on for far too long was the work of Buster Keaton and his amazing contributions to early film. Over the past few years, I had read about him, and may have seen one of his shorts in college. When I finally took the time to watch The General, it was like no other film I had seen before; refreshing, beautiful, simple and yet complex in it’s daring.
In 1926’s The General, Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is an engineer, driving his beloved locomotive, The General, down the rails. His other love is a southern beauty, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When the Civil War starts, he runs down to be first in line to enlist, hoping this will impress Annabelle. However, the Confederate army won’t take him, claiming he is more valuable as an engineer. His chances with Annabelle seem shot, unless he can get into one of those gray uniforms.
When Union spies steal The General, Johnnie acts quickly to chase after them in a different locomotive. A great deal of the film is a chase, and it is fantastic. There are constant obstacles that turn into great gags, thrilling suspense and daring stunts. Little does Johnnie know that he’s chasing these spies into enemy lines, or that they have Annabelle held hostage on board.
If you have read my review of The Train, you may be aware of my fierce love for old trains. Let’s just say, The General nearly drove me out of my mind. What magnificent trains! I squealed with delight when Keaton was moved up and down while sitting on the coupling rods. The trains used in the film feel more like characters than machines. The love story between Johnnie and Annabelle is no match for the love we feel for The General, that little engine who can. And just as Johnnie is pitted against the baddies from the Union army, we feel a struggle between The General and the other locomotive, The Texan.
While The General is primarily considered a comedy, it is very much an action film. The stunts Keaton performed were very dangerous. Throughout the film are scenes showing him and others moving from one train car to the next, even climbing on the very front of the engine while it is in motion. The most spectacular stunt is the big bridge scene toward the end of the film. Wanting a genuine reaction, Keaton did not tell the extras in the scene that the train would cause the bridge to collapse. Hopefully everyone stayed far enough from the wreckage. That big moment is amazing and really seals the film. But that poor train was just left behind and was scrapped for metal during WWII.
The General is an essential movie for any film fan. Not only is it an important film from the silent era, but extremely influential to this day. And it will not disappoint. The dangerous stunts, the action, the constant suspense and obstacles in Johnnie’s way keep us at our utmost attention. The story and character arcs have a very pleasing symmetry, turning the tables perfectly. And the comedy keeps it light and a very fun ride.
“If you lose this war, don’t blame me.”