Genre: Adventure, Comedy, and War Running Time: 1 hr. 7 min.
Release Date: February 5th, 1927 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton Actors: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton
he Western and Atlantic Flyer speeds into Marietta, Georgia in the spring of 1861, with Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) at the helm of his locomotive, the “General.” Any moment that he’s not piloting his first love, the engine, he woos dainty Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). When Fort Sumter is fired upon, telling of the war’s arrival, Annabelle’s father and brother hurry off to enlist. Reluctantly, Gray follows suit, but is turned down by the Confederate Army, as he’s more valuable to the South as an engineer. They fail to mention that fact to the slight man, who believes his rejection is instead based on his physical diminutiveness. When Lee’s family returns from the recruitment center, they inform Annabelle that Johnnie didn’t even get in line. Disgusted with his apparent cowardice, she insists that she won’t speak to him again until he’s in uniform.
A year later, in a Union encampment north of Chattanooga, General Thatcher (Jim Farley) and chief spy Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) plan a military maneuver in which they’ll pretend to be neutral Kentuckians to steal the W&A train. Heading north, they’ll burn every bridge, effectively cutting off supplies to the enemy. Thatcher promises to send General Parker’s victorious squadron to advance to meet them during the day of the hijacking. Witnessing the heist and the incidental kidnapping of Annabelle, Gray treks after his precious locomotive – and woman – on a handcar. When an attempt to lead an army detachment in pursuit of the stolen train fails, he unwittingly gives chase by himself, captaining the Texas train, though his opponents believe they’re being followed by an outnumbering amount of soldiers.
“The General” gleefully features Keaton’s signature brand of acrobatics, with risky stunts involving the moving train, cannonball mishaps, derailments, the desperate pulling of wooden beams off the tracks mere inches before the engine tramples Gray, and jumping aboard or across individual railroad cars. Even Mack has her share of physical feats and slapstick, most of which are inspired by unintelligence and misfortune – but nonetheless riotous. Countless sequences provide utterly iconic black-and-white film imagery. It’s all part of an unbelievably riveting actioner (based on the historical Great Locomotive Chase of 1862), which is so tightly edited and designed that very few intertitles are ever displayed. It’s all the more impressive considering the lack of special effects available in 1926.
Of course, the humor is also plentiful and smartly focused, not content with random, ancillary asides. Instead, each witty moment is masterfully worked into the events of the plot, such as when Gray overhears the North’s plans while hiding under a dining table, or when stumbling about in the drizzly woods, or as he allows Annabelle to believe his presence in the enemy’s country is entirely on her account, or when he loses a shoe in a pile of boots. It’s a rare mix of perfectly complementary action, laughs, romance, and suspense. The film is also short and expertly paced, brilliantly turning the hunter into the hunted, with Gray utilizing many of the same evasive techniques employed against him during the initial quest. And it culminates in a large-scale, fiery, explosive, Rock River bridge shootout (highlighted by the annihilative crumbling of the structure under a Union train).
Just as Gray unintentionally becomes an integral part of the war, an inadvertent strategist, and an undeniable hero, so too does “The General” assume the rank of one of the greatest of all silent films. It further boasts rousing and momentous music and a heartwarming finale – components that aid the precarious adventures as orchestrated and performed by Keaton. Although it was poorly received during its debut, largely attributable to audiences and critics feeling confused over the equal mix of comedy and daredevilry, it has since risen to a place of great reverence, being one of the initial works inducted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989, and helping to keep Keaton relevant decades after the apex of his career.
– Mike Massie