After being rejected by the Confederate military, not realizing it was due to his crucial civilian role, an engineer must single-handedly recapture his beloved locomotive after it is seized by Union spies and return it through enemy lines.
You know what’s funny? Every single synopsis that I’ve read for Buster Keaton’s 1926 film The General has put emphasis on the civil war aspect of the film. And, although it’s an important plot point, I don’t think it’s the actual motivation for our main character of Johnnie Gray (played, of course, by Keaton).
The General is a film about the engineer of the titular train. Set in the spring of 1861, we are introduced to the conductor Johnnie Gray, who only has two loves in his life: that very train and his love, Annabelle Lee, played by Marion Mack. However, when the news of war breaks out, Annabelle Lee wants her Johnnie to be one of the first men to sign up. And, although he tries to please her, he is rejected by the military recruits because he would be more valuable to the war effort using his skills as a conductor. However, he does not realize this, and after exhausting all his options, he returns to her defeated. And, because it’s 1861 and the south, Annabelle Lee wants nothing to do with him.
Shortly after this, his train is commandeered by Union forces, and they attempt to destroy the train tracks that separate them and the Southern Army. Johnnie goes after his train, where his beloved Annabelle just so happens to have also been held hostage. Ultimately, Johnnie Gray is triumphant in getting his train back, getting his love back, and accidentally actually becoming a member of the Southern army.
About ten minutes in, I suddenly remembered why this film in particular was so notable. I remember talking about it in college and discussing how much of a madman Buster Keaton was for attempting the stunts that he did. Most famous in The General was the stunt where Keaton is on the front end of a locomotive. He’s holding a railroad tie in his arms. He must hit the other railroad tie that is on the tracks in front of him. In real life, had Buster Keaton missed the tie on the tracks, the train he was on would have derailed and he would have most likely died. And that’s one of the many wild stunts he does in just this film.
Clearly there was a lot of thought put into the actual look of the film. Pulling from photos of the civil war era, everything was very blunt and hard edged, especially when it came to the interior shots.
I’ve always preferred Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. I just always found Keaton funnier. And he is on top of his game in The General. The way he interacted with objects was truly what made him special. He’d incorporate everything that was in the scene, but in such a meticulously planned way. Even more so, his interactions with the other characters always felt so genuine, especially in this film. In particular, the running joke about the small pieces of wood. His body language is what made that joke truly funny.
Ladies and Gentleman, the great news is that I have finally found a silent film that does not put me to sleep. If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll know that, although I enjoy silent films, I have the absolute worst time trying to stay awake and focused on them. I guess I just find the music soothing or something. But, after 82 films, I finally have one that I watched in just one sitting. And, honestly, I’m thrilled about it.