Written by: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Greg Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom
Jokes may be thrown around, but it genuinely becomes hilarious what men are willing to do in order to gain the affections of individuals they fancy. From changing their personality, being untruthful, and in the case of The General, going to war. With this longing for love at its emotional core, it allows this bonafide classic to shine through its incredible set pieces and reminding everyone what makes Buster Keaton such a legend in this medium.
With the Civil War truly kicking off, a call has been put out for men in the Confederate South to enlist. Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton), a train engineer, learns the girl he adores, Annabelle (Marion Mack) wants a man in uniform and heads to enlist to no success. Disappointed he could not impress her, he’s called to action when Union spies steal a train and take Annabelle along inadvertently as a prisoner.
While becoming the love interest of Johnnie Gray in this story, it must be said, Annabelle is very shallow in what she likes in a man. Perhaps coming in a time where serving in a war brought honor to one’s name to such a high degree, I think it would be fair for Johnnie to reevaluate what he sees in Annabelle. That’s quite the sacrifice to make in order to gain the affections of one woman, but it serves as the framework of the story and sets up a fantastic film with some of the best stunt work ever put to film by one of the best to ever do it.
Narratively, The General puts the audience in quite an interesting predicament, as we’re meant to root for someone in the Confederate South taking on Union soldiers in hopes of getting his beloved back. I’m hoping everyone can agree that the Confederate South were the bad guys in the war considering they were fighting in order to keep their slaves, but this feature skirts around Johnnie fighting for any cause to ensure enslaved people stayed in bondage. Sure, he was no abolitionist from what the film shows, but his sole purpose to enlist comes from trying to impress a girl. Now, Annabelle’s insistence on Johnnie being in uniform calls into question her requirement in having a Confederate soldier lover, but we can look past that. If anything, Hollywood’s lack of diversity in those days allowed for convenience in not having to see exactly where these characters lie in supporting or fighting against slavery.
The proverbial magic where this film remains a masterwork comes from the chase, which takes up most of the runtime of this feature. It becomes one big chase sequence along the train tracks connecting the north and the south during the Civil War. A chase for Johnnie to get to Annabelle and then bring her back all while an entire war takes place. Seriously, the things a man would do for love. You have to respect the persistence of Johnnie. On the way up, it demonstrates why the army rejected his enlistment. The man knows how to operate a train, even all on his lonesome, he knows how to navigate the large hunks of machinery to the point where he was more valuable to the south as an engineer than a soldier.
As the chases continue on the tracks, it puts Buster Keaton in line to demonstrate his superb physical comedy and the death-defying situations he and his character had to go through in order to entertain the audience. Outsmarting other soldiers only becomes the beginning of a journey of a man having to put out fires, detach train carts, change uniforms wherever necessary, and a whole host of actions in order to ensure the safety of the girl he loves. So many of the stunts just left my mouth agape for the willingness of them to try it and the execution involved to allow them each to play into the story. Yes, the premise of the feature is pretty simple and much of the action serves as entertainment, but each sequence further informs what we know about this character. Each sequence comes with a different challenge and one he needs to confront on his own while operating a train.
The action does not lie at the wheel of the train but rather everything else falling on him, like logs, water, and other projectiles he needs to evade and then use to his advantage against his foes. That does not include the simple things like remembering to throw firewood into the engine to ensure the locomotive continues to run and catches up to the Union spies. An abundance of challenging circumstances thrown his way and he needs to react with spectacular quickness and it simply becomes a marvel to experience not only in the work of the character but Buster Keaton’s performance.
Co-directing and starring in the film, Buster Keaton demonstrates why he retains legendary status in the industry. The man continues to up the ante in this feature and the stunt work in order to entertain. He allows there to be an incredible amount of suspense considering all of these actions take place on moving trains but also plenty of physical comedy has become his reputation as an artist. The moments where he would dupe the Union soldiers contributed to the ridiculousness occurring around him as well as the many times he dodges death due to his surroundings.
Firing on all cylinders (get it?), The General stands the test of time as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece. A simple yet affecting narrative filled to the brim with stunning train sequences that have become synonymous in this man’s illustrious career. Such a fun experience and still puts modern action filmmaking to shame with how much Keaton can convey without the use of sound in his storytelling and how so many contemporary films of its ilks can barely put together coherent action sequences. Legendary for a reason and one to continually appreciate as a beacon of filmmaking excellence and stunt work from a man etched into the history books.