The General (1926)
“Love, Locomotives and Laughs”
Director: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender
Synopsis: When Union spies steal an engineer’s beloved locomotive, he pursues it single-handedly and straight through enemy lines.
Ask anybody – film buff or not – to name two silent film comics and the chances are they will come up with the names of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Together with the marginally less well-remembered Harold Lloyd, these three make up the pantheon of silent comic greats. And although these greats are sometimes lumped together with little thought given to their individual styles, the approaches of each of them to the art of comedy are remarkably diverse. Lloyd, of course, drew many laughs from his hair-raising balancing acts on the steel skeletons of half-constructed skyscrapers; Chaplin, once his style was fully-formed, found humour amongst his little tramp’s struggles with everyday objects and his aggressive misunderstanding of other’s intentions. While never plagiarising the work of Chaplin or Lloyd, Keaton seemed to combine the best of both: the spectacle of death-defying stunts and a childlike confusion about the obvious. Many of the funniest moments in The General – and it contains many funny moments – arise from Keaton’s failure to notice what is happening around him – whether it’s the fact that the train with which he is chasing a locomotive hijacked by Northern spies has travelled into enemy territory (made evident by the massed ranks of their cavalry troops visible in the background as Keaton’s Johnny Gray concentrates on gathering firewood), or that which was in front of him one moment has seemingly magically disappeared (instead of derailing while he’s pre-occupied once again). These incidents would be funny enough in their own right, but they’re compounded by Keaton’s reaction when faced with the unthinkable: a rigid poker face animated only by a slow, perplexed blinking of his eyes.
In the General, Keaton plays Johnny Gray, an engineer for the Western & Atlanta Railroad, whose attempts to enlist when war with the North is declared are foiled by the importance of his occupation. Not realising this, Johnny is heartbroken when his sweetheart Annabelle (Marion Mack), mistakenly believing him to be a coward, refuses to have anything to do with him until he is in uniform. Johnny gets the opportunity to prove his bravery when his beloved train, The General, is stolen by Union spies and he sets off in pursuit deep into enemy territory. What Johnny doesn’t realise until he stumbles into the Union spies’ headquarters is that Annabelle was on the train when it was hijacked and is now a prisoner of the Union.
The General is essentially one long chase movie played out on a railroad track that bisects such deep South locales as Big Shanty and Marietta. In fact, it’s actually two chase movies in one, with Johnny doing the chasing in the movie’s first half before then becoming the chased as he attempts to make his way back to the South with his train, his girl, and crucial information about a planned attack on Rebel troops. The consistency of the humour and comic invention in The General is remarkable, with the pace never letting up for a moment. Each new obstacle in Johnny’s way seems to provide Keaton with a cue for countless gags, none of which are overplayed. The action climaxes with an astonishing train crash – the most expensive stunt ever filmed during the silent era – which, if filmed today, would be subjected to two or three slo-mo replays from multitudes of angles. The General is Keaton at his best, and should be required viewing for all who love movies.
(Reviewed 3rd August 2012)