GENERAL, THE (directors/writers: Buster Keaton/Clyde Bruckman; screenwriters: Al Boasberg/Charles Smith/inspired by William Pittenger’s novel “The Great Locomotive Chase”; cinematographer: Dev Jennings/Bert Haines; editor: Sherman Kell; cast: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (Southern General), Joe Keaton (Union General), Charles Smith (Mr. Lee, Annabelle’s Dad), Frank Barnes (Annabelle’s Brother); Runtime: 74; United Artists; 1927-silent)
“This is Buster Keaton’s ageless masterpiece.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the great silent comedies. It was based on a true story of the Union stealing a Confederate train in Georgia and bringing it to Tennessee. Buster Keaton filmed it in Oregon, using the National Guard to play both the Southern and Northern extras. Except for the comedy of the heroic Buster Keaton character, the film version of the story is historically factual.
Buster Keaton was known as the Great Stone Face, whose comedy depended on him looking composed in the face of chaos around him. He developed this act when as a child in vaudeville with his father, where his often drunken dad would slap him around in the act and off. He learned not to react, and thus his main comedic antic became something that amazed audiences of the silent era.
The film opens in Marietta, Georgia, in 1861, as the Civil War begins with the firing on Fort Sumter. Johnnie Gray (Keaton) has two loves–his locomotive called “The General” and his girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Mack). Gray is dressed in his finest suit and is in Miss Lee’s house courting her when he hears war has been declared, and her father and brother go into town to sign up for the Confederate Army. When Gray goes, as he is urged to by Annabelle, he’s one of the first on line but is rejected because of his value as a train engineer. Even though he tries various ways to enlist he can’t, as Annabelle spurns him because he doesn’t have a uniform and she thinks he’s not enlisted because he’s a coward.
As a year goes by the Northern Army spies hijack Gray’s train to blow up bridges, to sabotage telegraph wires, to cut the tracks, and to cut off the Southern supplies, as they take the train to Chattanooga to connect with the Union forces. Annabelle is kidnapped and made a prisoner because she was in the baggage car at the time.
Gray becomes a one-man army chasing after his stolen train by foot, by bicycle, by sidecar, and with another locomotive, the Texas. The chase is the best ever done in film, and makes for many sight gags and hilarious moments. One of the inspired sketches is of Gray mounting a cannon on the train to fire at the lead train but suddenly finding the cannonball is aimed at him, and then at just the right moment he finds a way to fire the cannon as the lead train goes around a bend.
The comedy comes off so smoothly because Buster Keaton is absorbed in the two things he loves, and is serious about recovering both of them in spite of everything else. The comedy situation he creates is sheer genius. It’s easy to identify with him as the poor helpless soul, who only wants to do good and please those he loves. He’s the honest, hard-working little guy, someone who always means well but can’t help from being misunderstood by those around him.
When Gray reaches enemy territory he stumbles into a house where the Union generals are planning a sneak attack on the South. He hides under the dining table where they are making these plans, and when one of the officers burns a hole in the tablecloth Gray looks through it and discovers this is where they are keeping Annabelle–as he didn’t even realize she was taken.
Gray rescues Annabelle and his mission now becomes to warn the Southerners. Gray steals back the The General and is being chased by the Texas, as the chase now continues in reverse. The most expensive and most elaborate scene is when on the burning Rock River bridge the Texas plunges into the river. It was a one-shot deal and therefore had to be executed perfectly.
Buster even generously gives Marion Mack some really funny bits, as when they are back on The General and she proves to be so inept that she can only think of sweeping as if she was at home being a dutiful housewife. Another funny bit is when he needs firewood to feed the engine and she throws one log away because it has a hole in it.
This is Buster Keaton’s ageless masterpiece. He was more interested in making a good film that was authentic than in making stacks of money. He spared no expenses while filming, even laying down 19th-century tracks for the chase. As a result of the great expenses incurred, the film was more a critical success than a great moneymaker.
REVIEWED ON 1/27/2002 GRADE: A +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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