Now we have what is arguably Buster Keaton’s best-known movie, the 1926 comedy The General.
When the people of Marietta, Georgia hear about Fort Sumter being fired on, all the men in town go to enlist. One of the first in line is Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton). He is a train engineer for the General, and the men in charge of enlisting believe that he is more useful in that position. However, he isn’t told that, and his girlfriend, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and her family believe him to be a coward when they don’t see him enlisting (since he was one of the first in line and they were much farther back). About a year later, Union General Thatcher (Jim Farley) makes plans with one of his spies, Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), to sabotage the Confederate railroads. With a small crew, they plan to steal the General and take it north, burning bridges along the way to help cut off the Southern supply lines. When the train stops to let everyone off for dinner, the Union soldiers take the train, along with Annabelle Lee, who was looking into her luggage. However, Johnnie Gray sees the train being stolen, and immediately takes off after it, finding any way he can to keep up with it (and keep them from burning bridges in the process). Once he gets into enemy territory, he goes into hiding, and ends up hiding in a house the spies are staying at. He learns of the Union army’s plans for a surprise attack, and tries to escape with Annabelle. They get on the General and take off, making their way back towards the Confederate army, with Union soldiers close behind them.
For this movie, Buster Keaton decided to borrow from history, making use of an actual event from the American Civil War. The story had been written as a memoir called The Great Locomotive Chase by Will Pittenger, one of the Union soldiers originally involved in the actual raid. Buster wanted things to be as faithful as possible, as he considered using the original train (then on display in Chattanooga) and the original locations, but the style of railways had long since been replaced, and the train was unavailable since the movie was being planned as a comedy. Still, he was able to make use of three antique trains for the movie, and they filmed it in Oregon, where some narrow-gauge railroads tracks still remained, and borrowed 500 members of the National Guard to portray both armies.
In reading about this movie, I saw that it was originally a flop, at least partly due to its huge budget. I admit, the movie itself was a slight shock to me, as it didn’t seem as much like a Buster Keaton comedy to me. I expected a bit different, and the laughs didn’t come as hard and fast for me as from some of his other films and shorts that I have seen. All that being said, however, I can see this movie being one of his greats. While he may not have done as many comedic pratfalls as I expected, most of Buster’s stunts in this movie were still impressive, whether sitting on the coupling rods as the train starts up, or all the jumping around he does on the moving train, or many others, I am still very much impressed with what he could do. While the movie may not have its fans nowadays since he plays a hero of the Confederacy, I still have to admire the courage and fortitude of one man trying to go after a train of enemy soldiers all by himself and coming out of it successfully. A truly wonderful movie, and one I would highly recommend anybody see if they get the chance!
This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group with Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) as part of “The Buster Keaton Collection Volume 1.” Having been given a recent restoration, this movie now looks fantastic in this release, almost as if it had been filmed yesterday! Certainly makes this release well worth it to see this movie looking so great!
Film Length: 1 hour, 19 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
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List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Battling Butler (1926) – Buster Keaton – College (1927)