“The General” - Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman (1926)

Of the string of brilliant silent-film comedies Buster Keaton made in 1920s – which include Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and The Cameraman (1928) – the one that is most remembered and most honored today is The General (1926). This is particularly interesting, since the The General lost money and was initially a flop with the critics at the time of its release. But that work was the most carefully preserved of Keaton’s films and the one that has been most seen by subsequent audiences.  And since those early days, the film’s reputation has swelled dramatically.  Many film critics consider The General to be Keaton’s greatest film and one of the greatest films ever [1,2,3].  In fact in the British Film Institute’s decennial polls of greatest films ever made (published in its outlet Sight & Sound), international critics ranked it #8 in 1972, #10 in 1982, and #34 in 2012 [4,5].  And in the British Film Institute’s 2012 poll of international film directors, The General was ranked 75th greatest film of all time [6].

There are a couple of things that stand out in connection with The General.  For one thing, the film is based on true events that took place during the American Civil War (1861-1865).  It tells the story of the Union army military theft of a railroad train in Confederate (Southern) territory in 1862 and the ensuing chase for its recapture, known as the Great Locomotive Chase [7].  Although the original memoirs of these events were told from a “Northern” perspective, Keaton felt audiences would be more sympathetic if the narrative focus to were shifted to the perspective of Southern protagonists.

Another distinguishing feature of The General is its unrelenting presentation of a manic series of physical events that draw the wonder of any viewer as to how the filmmakers were able to engineer (and survive) them.  These all contribute to the usual Keaton theme of an innocent and intrepid young man facing a hostile and seemingly overwhelming universe blocking his sincere intentions.  Actually, this was always a feature of Keaton’s films at that time, but The General went to further extremes in this regard than any of his other films and could be considered to be a marvel of cinematic engineering [8].

The story of The General is told in five acts of unequal length.  But the core of the film and the source of its appeal is presented in the two acts featuring chase scenarios – “Chase #1" and “Chase #2".

1.  A Locomotive is Stolen
The film starts in 1861 in the Southern city of Marietta, Georgia, where young railroad engineer Johnny Gray (played by Buster Keaton) has two passions – his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and the locomotive for the Western and Atlantic Railroad for which he is the engineer (driver), The General.  When news of the Civil War’s break out, everyone rushes to enlist in the South’s army.  But Johnny is turned away, because, unbeknownst to him, the authorities think he is more valuable continuing to serve as a railroad engineer.  He is immediately branded as a coward by Annabelle and her family, and she tells him that she won’t see him again until he is wearing a military uniform.  Thus Johnny’s big problem is disproving to the world that he is a coward.

One year passes, and we see Johnny setting off northward from Marietta in his train.  Annabelle, who is still not speaking to Johnny, is a passenger onboard on he way to visit her wounded father at the front.  When the train stops for a dinner break at Big Shanty (Kennesaw), some disguised Union army saboteurs enter and steal the train while it is empty and head north.  But Annabelle was looking around inside a baggage boxcar at the moment and becomes a prisoner of the train thieves.  When Johnny looks up and sees his train heading off, he chases after it.

2.  Chase #1
The scene is set for the first of the famous chase sequences.  To hinder their pursuers, the Union saboteurs cut telegraph lines and dislodge track rails.  But Johnny furiously chases after them, first on foot, then in a handcar, and then in bicycle.  When he gets to the town of Kingston, he finds a train full of Confederate soldiers to help out in the chase.  But when he hurriedly takes off in the train, he doesn’t realize that the engine was decoupled from its cars, and he finds himself speeding down the tracks alone.

Now we have two trains racing, one in pursuit of another.  The pace of the film becomes absolutely frantic.  There are a number of ingeniously filmed actions shown, as the saboteurs try to impede Johnny by decoupling one of The General’s boxcars so it will be left behind to slow up Johnny’s train and by dropping railroad ties on the tracks in hopes they will cause Johnny’s train to derail.

Johnny manages to overcome these obstacles by performing amazingly dangerous and dexterous feats while perched on his pursuing train’s cowcatcher.  Keaton always worked without a stuntman, and anyone who watches this movie will wonder how they filmed it, when modern special-effects techniques were not yet available.

Eventually, Johnny notices that he has crossed into enemy territory in Tennessee.  He abandons his train and escapes on foot into the forest.

3.  Behind Enemy Lines
Johnny just happens to hide inside a house where Union army generals have come to meet in order to plan their next offensive.  While hiding precariously under their meeting table, he overhears their plans to have their advancing army join up with a Union supply train at Rock River Bridge.  He also is shocked to see that Annabelle is being held prisoner in the house.

So then in a few slapstick action sequences, Johnny manages to knock out a Union guard, don his uniform, and then sneak Annabelle out of the house.  They make their way to a train station where the stolen train, The General, just happens to be parked.  There Johnny smuggles Annabelle onto the train, decouples the engine from most of its boxcars, and then steals the train.

4.  Chase #2
Johnny, back driving The General, is now heading south, and as Union soldiers pursue him in a separate train, the second chase begins.  Again it’s a hectic sequence of back-and-forth manic maneuvers between the pursued and the pursuers, but this time the roles are reversed, and Johnny is the pursued.  Once more we see frantically sabotaged telegraph lines, train track switches thrown off, and Johnny littering the track behind him with boxes from the car he is pulling.  This time, though, Johnny is accompanied by the well-meaning but overly household-concerned Annabelle.  At one memorable point the exasperated Johnny begins choking Annabelle out of frustration, but ends up kissing her instead.

There are actually two Union trains rushing after Johnny in The General in this sequence.  One has soldiers intent on capturing Johnny, and a following train has supplies intended for a meeting up with the Union army at the Rock River Bridge.

5.  Rock River Bridge
Johnny arrives at the bridge first and manages to set a fire on the bridge and leave it burning there.  Then he and Annabelle make it to a nearby town where a Confederate army camp is located and summon rebel soldiers to confront the Union army back at the bridge.  Johnny wants to join these soldiers but is ignored, because he is not a member of the Confederate army.

At the Rock River Bridge, the Union train attempts to cross over the burning bridge, but the bridge collapses, and the train falls to its destruction.  This bridge destruction was an incredibly expensive action for Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman to film, and they had only one camera take in which to record it [3]. Note that Keaton was normally a painstaking perfectionist who often demanded many shooting retakes to get things just right – the shooting ratio for The General was greater than 30:1.  So Keaton’s carefully planned craftsmanship and elaborate physical action sequences like this bridge collapse and train engine destruction were what caused the production expenses for this film to run way over budget.

Then the assembled Confederate army soldiers ambush the Union army trying to ford the river, and the Union army is forced to beat a hasty retreat.  With the battle won, the Confederate soldiers return triumphantly to the town.  Johnny is still ignored by the celebrants, but when a Confederate general learns of Johnny’s capture of the commanding Union train saboteur, he hastily appoints Johnny to the position of army lieutenant.  Johnny is recognized as a hero at last.

The final scene shows Lieutenant Johnny awkwardly struggling to at the same time both kiss his now-forgiving Annabelle and also duplicate in acknowledgment the salutes of troops that pass by the embracing couple.

Overall, Keaton’s The General manages to pack into a relatively complex plot structure an incredible mixture of slapstick comedy elements.  Throughout the story, Keaton maintains his never-say-die enthusiasm and determination to get past a seemingly endless succession of insurmountable obstacles.  What people undoubtedly remember most, though, are those two chase sequences, where the obstacle encounters appear at a dizzying rate.

Unforgettable for me is the time when Johnny is sitting on his speeding train’s cowcatcher and has to remove railroad ties that can derail his train and which have been left on the tracks by those whom he is chasing.  He somehow manages to hold a large, unwieldy tie in his arms and, with miraculously accuracy, heave it onto another tie lying ahead on the tracks, causing both ties to fall harmlessly away by the wayside.

On another occasion, this time when he is being chased by a Union train, Johnny stops by a log fence to gather more wood fuel for his engine, and he hurriedly starts heaving big fence logs onto his train  tender.  After laboriously managing to get three logs onto his tender, the fourth log he  heaves unluckily lands in such a way as to cause all of his previously loaded logs to bounce out of the tender and back onto the ground.

And, of course, there is the famous artillery cannon sequence, when the fortuitous encounter of a curve in the railroad tracks saves Keaton from being blown away when the out-of-control cannon fires its load.

Physical actions like these, which last only for a few seconds, must have taken extraordinary efforts to get right, and they successively appear to the viewer at a furious pace.  Keaton often doesn’t fuel the viewer’s expectations of critical events like these much in advance.  They just unexpectedly appear, one after another, and the ever-hopeful Keaton character has no time to reflect on or despair of what is swirling aground him.  This is an aspect that distinguishes Keaton from Chaplin.  Chaplin personalizes his encounters, making himself out to be the naughty underdog in a social world that is rigged against him.  Keaton externalizes the perspective, thereby pitting an upright, innocent man struggling in a world, in which all of nature, itself, seems sometimes pitted against him.  In that sense Keaton’s vision is often expressionistic, while Chaplin’s is not.

So this relentless succession of acrobatic and perfectly executed circus acts is what makes Keaton’s The General a great film. Brilliant as The General is, though, I still think Seven Chances is Keaton’s finest film.  But The General is excellent, nonetheless, and worth repeated viewings.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The General”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (31 May 1997).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).    
  3. Tim Dirks. "The General (1927)", Filmsite, (retrieved 17 April  2018).  
  4. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).   
  5. Roger Ebert, "How the directors and critics voted / Roger Ebert / Top Ten", bfi.org.uk, The Internet Archive, (Archived from the original on May 17, 2012).   
  6. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  7. “Great Locomotive Chase”, Wikipedia, (12 April 2018).  
  8. In this sense it might be compared to Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923).  

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