Poorly received on its initial release, THE GENERAL is now widely considered to be Buster Keaton's greatest film. The story of a Southern railroad engineer who becomes a Civil War hero, THE GENERAL is inarguably Keaton's most stirring movie, if not his greatest. (It is also the Keaton film
that loses the most impact when viewed on a TV screen.)
Marietta, Georgia, the spring of 1861: Young Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), a railroad man, loves only two things in life: "The General," his train engine, and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When word arrives that Fort Sumter has been fired upon, Johnnie attempts to enlist in the Confederate army,
but is rejected. Annabelle, thinking he is a slacker, severs her relationship with him.
One year later, a band of Union agents steal "The General" and ride off in it to begin a campaign of sabotaging Southern bridges. Inside the train is a prisoner, Annabelle. Johnnie commandeers another locomotive and rushes off in pursuit. After a series of confrontations with the Yankee hijackers,
Johnnie finds himself behind enemy lines, where he is forced to abandon the train and retreat to the woods. Hiding in a nearby house being used as a Union headquarters, Johnnie overhears Yankee officers making important military plans and discovers that Annabelle is their prisoner. Later that
night, he and Annabelle escape. The next morning, they steal back "The General" and head south with Union trains in close pursuit. After a hazardous trip, the couple arrive back in Marietta, where Johnnie alerts the Confederates to the Union army's proximity.
The Yankee attack fails, largely due to the courage and resourcefulness (and luck) of Johnnie Gray: a bridge that he had set on fire during his return trip collapses when the Union trains try to cross it, and his derring-do as an ad hoc Reb soldier helps defeat the Yankee ground forces. Johnnie is
rewarded with a commission in the Confederate army and the renewed affection of Annabelle.
Based on an actual Civil War event (treated more soberly in the 1956 Disney release THE GREAT RAILROAD CHASE), THE GENERAL, one of the great outdoor films, was photographed mostly in Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the narrow-gauge railroad equipment Keaton required was still available. If the RKO
facilities were, as Orson Welles contended in 1939, "the biggest electric train any boy ever had," then the railroading material Keaton found in Oregon constituted the biggest real train set any boy ever had. At the center of it was "The General" itself, one of the cinema's largest, most
memorable, and most ingeniously and exhaustively utilized props.
In, on, and around "The General" occur several of the most exciting and amazing shots and gags ever witnessed by movie audiences--moments so precisely timed and executed that they are more likely to elicit gasps (followed by smiles) than outright laughs. Two examples: Johnnie, seated on the
cowcatcher of a moving train, heaves a massive length of wood toward a similar piece lying on the track just ahead. The first stake miraculously dislodges the second just in time to prevent derailment. Later, the stunt is reversed when Johnnie lassos a telegraph pole, drags it behind "The General"
until it is perfectly positioned to derail his pursuers, and then cuts it loose.
Other shots impress with their wry poetry. In one shot, the camera is tracking slowly from right to left while, in the background, the Southern army is rapidly retreating in the opposite direction. Then, in the foreground, we see "The General" passing in and out of frame from right to left. Facing
the camera is Johnnie, feverishly chopping wood, totally unaware of the Rebel retreat taking place just behind him as he unknowingly rushes into enemy territory. The use of the slowly tracking camera, overtaken and passed by the more rapidly tracking locomotive, juxtaposed with the army traveling
in the opposite direction, is a classic instance of cinematography in which adroitness and beauty reinforce each other.
Keaton, the cinema's most acrobatic comedian, possessed a small but superbly athletic body (rivaled in compact grace only by Joe E. Brown's) topped by an unhandsome but oddly beautiful face. He was not as versatile an actor as Charlie Chaplin, and he probably knew it. When he developed his
stone-faced persona early in his career, he turned his lack of emotional range into an asset; his perennially unsmiling expression freed him to concentrate fully on his neck-down delivery and, in the process, he created what became, along with the Hitchcock cameo, one of Hollywood's most
successful publicity hooks.
THE GENERAL might have been an even stronger picture (if that's possible) had Annabelle been made a more deserving partner of the intrepid hero--less quick to believe he's a draft evader, more equal to the exploits required of her in the second half of the movie. Hardly more than a pretty prop,
this hapless heroine is never really allowed to get into the spirit of things as, say, Kathleen Turner's character does in ROMANCING THE STONE (1984). Annabelle's ineptitude has a certain charm but an unsuspected ingenuity might have been even more fetching. In one famous moment, after she has
daintily deposited a minuscule piece of kindling into the boiler of "The General," Johnnie starts to strangle her, reconsiders, then kisses her--an apt illustration of love trumping exasperation and gender differences.
THE GENERAL is believed to be the most expensive silent comedy ever made. One shot alone--the collapse of the bridge--cost $42,000 to execute (the equivalent of nearly $2,000,000 today). The movie's total budget ultimately exceeded $750,000 but it grossed only $474,000 on its first release. Today
the reasons for its box-office and critical failure seem almost inexplicable. True, it wasn't as funny as other Keaton films, but it was never intended as an all-out laugh riot. Perhaps audiences were beginning to resent a comic star who (half a century before Eddie Murphy) was increasingly
grounding his on-screen character in superhuman competence instead of all-too-human incompetence. Or maybe, as critic Robert Sherwood suggested, "Someone should have told Buster that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle."
Nonetheless, THE GENERAL survives, and survives gloriously, as probably the only extant film that would qualify for all-time ten-best lists in the categories of both comedy and adventure. Three years before his death in 1966, Keaton said, "I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made."
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- Review: Poorly received on its initial release, THE GENERAL is now widely considered to be Buster Keaton's greatest film. The story of a Southern railroad engineer who becomes a Civil War hero, THE GENERAL is inarguably Keaton's most stirring movie, if not his gre… (more)