The General is probably Buster Keatons's most famous film, regarded by many as a silent comedy masterpiece. But it was also a disastrous one as far as Keaton was concerned, an expensive box office failure that led to his moving to MGM and losing his creative freedom.
In The General, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on the Western & Atlantic Railroad during the era of the American Civil War. Johnnie has two great loves, his sweetheart Annabelle (Marion Mack) and his steam locomotive "The General".
When war breaks out, Annabelle urges Johnnie to join the Confederate army. So Johnnie rushes to the recruiting centre to sign up, only to be turned away. His job on the railroad makes him of greater value to the war effort than he would be as a soldier. When he tells Annabelle that he was rejected by the army, she doesn't believe him and tells him that their relationship is now off.
A year later, and Johnnie is still working on the railroad, when he unexpectedly becomes caught up in a Union plot to disrupt and destroy Confederate communication lines. A group of Union soldiers hijack Johnnie's train and he is forced to give chase. Coincidentally, Johnnie's former love Annabelle is also on board the train, and is captured by the enemy soldiers. Johnnie therefore has to recover both his beloved engine and his former sweetheart.
The General is not only one of Buster Keaton's most famous films, it was also one of his most ambitious. As star and co-director (with Clyde Bruckman) Keaton was given a then huge $400,000 budget to play with. But even this figure grew as production costs, and the problems involved in making such an ambitious film, mounted.
The story was based on a real incident in the American Civil War in 1862, when Union soldiers commandeered a train hauled by the steam locomotive "The General" and attempted to do as much damage as possible to Confederate communications in Georgia. Confederate soldiers gave chase in their own engine "The Texas". The Union soldiers were eventually captured and several executed as spies, something not mentioned in The General. The incident is sometimes known as Andrews' Raid, after its leader James Andrews.
The story was told in William Pittenger's book Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure, also known as The Great Locomotive Chase. The book was also later turned into a Disney film, The Great Locomotive Chase, in 1956. Pittenger was a Union soldier involved in the actual incident but, unlike his book, Keaton's film would be told from the Confederate perspective.
Filming took place in and around Cottage Grove in Oregon, where Keaton's team built their town set and used the miles of local rail tracks to shoot the action scenes. National Guardsmen were drafted in to play the Union and Confederate armies. Buster Keaton's father, Joe, who appeared in his earlier films Our Hospitality (1923) and Sherlock, Jr (1924), also features in this film, as one of the Union Generals.
The General 's narrative is based on two locomotive chases. In the first, Johnnie pursues the Union soldiers who have stolen his engine and kidnapped his girl. In the second, he is pursued by the enemy soldiers as he makes his getaway. In between, Johnnie spends time behind enemy lines where he eavesdrops on Union commanders and disguises himself in an enemy uniform.
This simple structure allows Keaton to present his familiar figure of an ordinary man struggling with extraordinary circumstances. A man who tries and, in this case, eventually succeeds during the course of the chase, to get the physical world around him, and its technology, to do what he wants it to.
The General is a curious beast, though, a hybrid action movie, comedy, war film and historical adventure. At times it feels strongly as if Buster Keaton wanted to make an American Civil War epic, but no one would fund it without him turning it into a comedy. As a result, the film is a not entirely satisfactory mixture of comedy and action spectacular.
Keaton's strict adherence to the conventions, attitudes and assumptions of the time are a little disappointing, as is his turning a real incident, in which several people lost their lives, into a simple boy-chases-girl story. Despite its good points, which I'll come to, The General 's plotting and characterisations are a little too simple, and hinge on unlikely coincidences and a dubious moral message.
The General also contains what is often claimed to be the single most expensive scene in silent cinema history, when the bridge underneath one of the trains collapses, sending the locomotive plunging into the river below. Getting this shot meant destroying the locomotive for real, and it cost a reported $42,000 to film.
Great care was obviously taken to make the film look visually authentic, and the physical aspects of the production are impeccable. Many critics have noted the visual similarity to genuine photographs from the Civil War era.
It's notable that Keaton decided to tell the story from the supposedly more sympathetic Confederate side. In the early 20th Century, the Confederacy was viewed with more sympathy than it would be now, as a romantic lost cause (see also Gone with the Wind). Keaton said that “You can always make villains out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain of the South”. Needless to say, it's very unlikely that any film maker now would switch the story's point-of-view for the reasons that Keaton did.
The General is also oddly militaristic for a film made less than a decade after World War I. The film implies that men should prove themselves in war in order to be worthy of their women, and that it's reasonable, even right, for their women to expect them to do so. This is a surprising message to give only a few years after the mass slaughter of WWI, when the “white feather” movement, and women shaming men into enlisting in the army, was a real thing.
The message of the film is that feats of heroism and daring in wartime can bring you everything you want. Or reclaim those things that you lost - in Johnnie Gray's case, both his loco and his girl. At the end, Johnnie is in the soldier's uniform he wanted all along, but wasn't allowed to don. His exploits have ended the unwanted social ostracism he experienced after being rejected for military service.
Some of the ironies of the story, and the simple mirroring nature of the narrative, do soften this message a little though. One irony in the film is that Annabelle tells Johnnie that she won't speak to him again until she sees him in uniform. She keeps her word. But when she does speak to him again, he's wearing a uniform, but it's the wrong one - a Union uniform rather than the Confederate one she no doubt had in mind.
Some later critics have described The General as romantic, but it's not really. I can't help thinking that a better ending would have Johnnie realising that he doesn't need his undeserving girlfriend after all. Or perhaps it should end with Annabelle giving Johnnie an ultimatum, his railway engine or her - and have Johnnie choose the engine instead.
The General 's attempts to get laughs out of war and out of a real event that cost several men their lives, may be partly why the contemporary critics were so unimpressed. Robert Sherwood, a playwright and later screenwriter of films including The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), wrote “someone should have told Buster Keaton that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle.”
The critics were mostly hostile, calling the film dull and unfunny, and the public were apparently a little bemused by it. Perhaps audiences didn't much care for Keaton's mashing of genres, or maybe they just didn't think The General was all that funny.
The film wasn't a box office success, and it prompted producer Joseph M. Schenk to sell Buster Keaton's contract to MGM, where Keaton would never have the same kind of creative freedom or latitude again.
The fate of Clyde Bruckman, co-director of The General, was, if anything, worse than Keaton's. Bruckman had previously worked as a writer on Keaton's films, including Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator. After The General he returned to writing, but his habit of recycling jokes and routines from his previous films brought repeated lawsuits, and eventually made producers reluctant to hire him. He committed suicide in 1955 aged 60, with a gun borrowed from Keaton.
Buster Keaton is usually seen as one of the three comic giants of the American silent cinema, together with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. He fell out of favour with the coming of sound, but was championed by later critics, particularly Andrew Sarris in his 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.
Perhaps this partly explains why The General was ranked in a lofty 8th place in the decennial Sight and Sound poll in 1972, although it later dropped, ranking in 34th place by the time of the 2012 poll. The General was also among the first films to be selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989.
Copyright on The General was allowed to lapse, and so there are many public domain versions floating around with various running times and of variable quality. Different versions have also been given alternative music scores and some of these can have a detrimental impact on enjoyment of the film. Since it's public domain, The General can easily be found to watch online, although some versions may be under copyright due to their music scores. This silent version was uploaded to Youtube by the American Film Institute.
The GeneralYear: 1926
Genre: Adventure, Action, Comedy, War, Historical
Directors: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Cast Buster Keaton (Johnnie Gray), Marion Mack (Annabelle Lee), Glen Cavender (Captain Anderson), Jim Farley (General Thatcher), Frederick Vroom (Southern General), Charles Smith (Annabelle's father), Frank Barnes (Annabelle's brother), Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin & Tom Nawn (Union Generals).
Screenplay Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, adaptation by Al Boasberg, Charles Smith, based on Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure (The Great Locomotive Chase) by William Pittenger Producers Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck Cinematography Dev Jennings, Bert Haines Technical director Fred Gabourie Editors Sherman Kell, Harry Barnes, Buster Keaton Lighting effects Denver Harmon
Running time 78 mins (black & white, silent)
Production company United Artists / Joseph M. Schenk Distributor United Artists