Today we have another installment of Cinematic Century, it’s the final film in the accidental marathon of silent comedies that I’ve had going for the last couple of weeks, and it’s also the final time we’ll be talking about Mister Buster Keaton. We’re nearing the end of the silent era in general, and except for Charlie Chaplin’s stubborn refusal to venture into the wild world of the talkies, we’re nearing the end of our slapstick silent comedies. And, a perfect film to discuss here at the twilight of the silent era is one of its most impressive works. 1926 really only had one possibility for me. I’ve seen Murnau’s Faust, and it’s a pretty great little horror film, and I feel like I should check out A Page of Madness and The Adventures of Prince Achmed sooner or later, but as of right now the biggest film from 1926 I’ve seen is the film that Keaton is probably most known for, his classic the General. It’s certainly the best of Keaton’s films I’ve seen, and one of the most impressive films, regardless of sound or not.
This film began life when Keaton read a book called the Great Locomotive Chase about an actual event that occurred during the Civil War. A group of Union soldiers snuck into the South and stole a Confederate train, getting in a series of crazy chases in order to steal a locomotive known as the General. Keaton fell in love with the idea, although he decided he should flip the sides, because people wouldn’t accept a story where the Confederates were villains. Which…is a weird decision to make, but we’ll talk about that later. The film then began production, becoming one of the biggest and most expensive films up until that point in time. He filled it with shocking and incredibly dangerous stunts, putting himself in a lot of danger to make a film that was equal parts thrilling and funny. There was only one problem. The film was a massive failure. People weren’t interested in it, and because of the huge budget, the film became a black mark on Keaton’s career. Up until this point Keaton had kind of been allowed to do whatever he wanted, and more or less had creative control of his films. This would no longer be the case. He’d still make some fun films after the General, but it’s certainly a point in his career where things start to change for the worse. Which is a shame, because the General is a hell of a film. The whole Confederacy thing can make watching it today rather unpalatable, but the General remains one of the most impressive films of the silent era.
The General tells the tale of a young Southern engineer named Johnnie Gray. Johnnie has a decent life, operating a train known as the General and doing his best to woo a young woman named Annabelle. However, his life is thrown into chaos when the Civil War begins, and all Southern men are expected to volunteer for the Army. Johnnie decides to go through with it, mainly to appease Annabelle, but he runs into a problem. The military thinks that having a man who knows how to run a train would be too precious of a commodity to make a soldier, so they turn him down. They just don’t tell him the real reason, so everyone assumes Johnnie was just a coward who wouldn’t go through with enlisting. He loses the respect of Annabelle and her family, and has to just watch as everyone around him prepares to become war heroes. And, after some time passes, Annabelle learns that her father has been wounded, and needs to travel to be with him, on the very train that Johnnie engineers. But, disaster strikes when a group of Union spies arrive, and steal the train, with Annabelle still aboard. Their plan is to take the General, flee North, and destroy the rail road along the way so that the Confederates can’t use the railline anymore.
But Johnnie isn’t going to let this happen. He takes a second engine and gives chase, following the Union soldiers on their journey North. Johnnie is able to deflect all of their ridiculous attacks, while keeping up with his high-speed chase. However, when the Union soldiers realize the Johnnie doesn’t have any backup, they prepare to attack him, causing him to flee into the woods. But, that doesn’t turn out to be too detrimental, because he ends up stumbling upon a random house in the woods, and when he sneaks inside to find food, he ends up finding the Union soldiers who stole this train. And Annabelle. Johnnie overhears that their entire plan, and manages to sneak out of the house, with Annabelle. He’s learned that the Union soldiers are relying almost completely on a specific bridge.
Johnnie and Annabelle manage to flee from the Union house, and with these plans in their heads, decide to get some revenge. By this point Johnnie has obtained a Union uniform, and is able to sneak both himself and Annabelle onto the General, which is getting ready to make the trek over the bridge full of supplies and soldiers. Johnnie is able to unlatch the engine of the train, and knocks out the two engineers, letting him and Anabelle flee South. The Union soldiers give chase once more, and we get to see more high-speed train shenanigans, culminating in Johnnie and Annabelle reaching the bridge. They manage to light a significant portion of it on fire, and continue on their trek to the South. The Union soldiers keep giving chase, and eventually reach the bridge, collapsing it and sending their train down into the river. Johnnie and Annabelle then return South, with the General, and are considered heroes. In fact, Johnnie is even made a lieutenant in the Army, gaining him back all the respect he lost in the beginning of the film. He then presumably gets to continue fighting for the right to own people!
I don’t think I’ll ever get over how breathtaking it can be to see Buster Keaton perform some of the stunts in his films. He just seemed absolutely fearless, pulling off some incredibly feats that would make my jaw drop if I saw it in a modern day movie, let alone one from close to a hundred years ago. This film has a very simple plot. It’s actually kind of similar to Mad Max: Fury Road, what with it basically revolving around journeying to one place, and then back. But, similarly to Fury Road, Keaton and Company were able to draw out a staggering amount of tension and emotion from just watching a couple trains traveling back and forth on the countryside. The train stunts are incredibly impressive, and seeing Keaton scurry around his engine, hopping off to get rid of whatever trap his enemies have left for him, only to hop back on and continue racing along, is nothing short of amazing. Keaton’s traditional dead-pan is certainly in rare form here, letting him give takes to camera, just looking so confused and fed up while everything that can go around him does. His Johnnie is a ridiculous character, just running into every conceivable problem and rolling with it. And all for love. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally invested in a Keaton movie as I have with say a Chaplin one, but that oddly doesn’t become a detrimental factor in this story. Yeah, Annabelle is the whole reason that Johnnie is doing all of this, but the film has a hypnotic style to it, drawing you into the action and the incredibly fluid and followable narrative. Honestly, adding in too much plot may have made it harder to connect with all of the train sequences, which carry the film.
Although, there’s another aspect of the film that makes it hard to connect to it. And it’s kind of the elephant in the room when discussing the General. The Confederacy. I was rather shocked when I learned that this story was based on an event that actually happened, but with the sides flipped. I had always assumed that Keaton was choosing to have his hero be a Confederate because it was based on something that actually happened. But to see it cited that Keaton specifically flipped his heroes allegiance because he thought people wouldn’t accept a Union hero is kind of flabbergasting. Having the hero of our movie be a war-hero for the Confederacy is pretty shocking, especially in a time like we’re living in now, when the debate over honoring the soldiers of the Confederacy is such an issue. The General is a very fun movie, and one of the most important figures in film history, but it can be a tough watch for that reason. Glorifying a person who was fighting so that rich people could own other human beings is insane, and I feel like it should have been a bizarre choice in 1926. But apparently not. I don’t honestly know that much about Keaton’s personal beliefs, and I’m really hoping that this film doesn’t give insight into any feelings Keaton had toward the Confederacy’s beliefs, because that would be a serious heartbreak. But, similarly to what I said when I first discussed Broken Blossoms, part of appreciating film history is acquiring a knowledge of historical context. Movies sometimes have subject matter that seems shockingly antiquated to modern audiences, and the idea of having a heroic Southerner gleefully defeating Union soldiers is certainly in that camp. But, if you can get past that while knowing that you aren’t condoning the beliefs, you can appreciate one of the most innovative and impressive films ever made, be it in the silent era or not.
The General was written by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, and Paul Girard Smith, directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, and released by United Artists, 1926.
Categories: Cinematic Century