The General: Spies, Trains and a Girl

LOVE, LOCOMOTIVES AND LAUGHS. 

thegeneralOne has to wonder if critics and audiences were blind in 1927 when The General premiered. Admittedly, Buster Keaton had made several comedies that were audacious, but lack of thrills was not the reason why people seemed indifferent to the film. Some critics found its earnest intentions confusing and considered the movie not up to par with the comedian’s earlier efforts. Over the years, The General has become the definitive Buster Keaton vehicle, one of the supreme silent-era masterpieces. Perhaps later critics have come to realize that although the film does offer more of what people came to expect from the daring comedian in those days, it also elevated the comedy to another level because of its basis in reality and credible Civil War-era setting.

Train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is in Georgia to see his fiancee Annabelle (Marion Mack) when the Civil War breaks out. He wants to join the Confederate Army, but is considered too valuable as an engineer; rejected without an explanation, Johnnie leaves the recruitment office. Annabelle and her family come to believe that he is too much of a coward to fight for the South and she tells him that she won’t speak to him again unless he’s in uniform. One year later, after hearing that her father has been wounded, Annabelle is traveling on “The General”, a train, to see him when it is hijacked by Union spies and Annabelle becomes their prisoner. Johnnie drops everything and uses every track-bound vehicle he can find to catch up with “The General”…

Defying belief
Based on a real-life 1862 incident, depicted in William Pittenger’s book “The Great Locomotive Chase”, the story almost defies belief. The hunt for “The General” involved several trains, but none of the real ones are seen in the movie – although Keaton apparently tried to obtain permission to use the real “General”. They can still however be found in museums. As for the train used in one of the film’s most famous scenes, the one where the “Texas” tries to pass a burning bridge that collapses, the filmmakers got what they wanted – the most expensive scene to be shot during the silent era, and one of the most spectacular. After just leaving the wrecked train in the river, it became a tourist attraction until it was apparently used for scrap during World War II. Today, no filmmaker would attempt something as insane; that’s what we have CGI and models for. But Keaton was something else, and there are many other equally outrageous action scenes peppered throughout the movie, which is just as exciting as it is funny. After the train crash, we’re treated to an elaborate battle featuring hundreds of extras. The comedian, along with his collaborator Clyde Bruckman who worked with many other innovative silent-film comedians, had an eye for the visual, which is obvious in a scene where Johnnie sits on one of the side rods of a train that begins to move and doesn’t realize what he’s doing until the train heads into a tunnel. It’s a hilarious and very cute scene – but also another dangerous stunt that Keaton has us believing is effortless. The chase is varied and full of great sight gags, but the filmmakers also know when to take pauses and move the story forward in other ways. Keaton is magnificent throughout, his sullen charm obvious in most situations; Mack is also quite a capable leading lady who becomes more than a damsel in distress.

The General is one of those silent classics that have inspired composers decades later. There have been several scores written for the film. The one I heard now was written by Joe Hisaishi in 2004 and is brilliant; emotional and intriguing, it stands on its own.

The General 1927-U.S. Silent. 74 min. B/W. Produced by Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck. Written and directed by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman. Editing: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell. Cast: Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley, Joseph Keaton.

Trivia: Remade as The Great Locomotive Chase (1956).

Last word: “It was shot up around Cottage Grove, Oregon. Because not only the scenery was perfect for it, but all the narrow-gauge railroads from those lumber camps [were there]. And so much of the equipment. Because we bought engines up there and with very little work remodeled ’em into Civil War engines. Then we built a passenger train and a freight train on their flat cars. They had the rolling stock for us. So we just built box cars and passenger coaches and all the track in the world we wanted to use was already laid for us. And it looked aged, which we wanted, and badly – you know – they don’t bother keepin’ it looking good, they don’t care what grows around it… I wanted it that way.” (Keaton, “Buster Keaton: Interviews”)

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