Top 250 - The General (1926)

A masterpiece of cinematography and adventure storytelling - "The General" is the definition of how action should have been done.

It shows my complete ignorance of silent film (and American history) to say that I went into this picture thinking Keaton was playing a famous general, or at least, that a general of some kind was part of the story, perhaps somewhere along the lines of Chaplin's Dictator (this was also, I'd like to note, before I'd seen the cover to your left). I was right in some measure. There certainly was a general or two on screen, given the context of the American Civil War, however, the 'General' of the title is a locomotive engine, captured by Union troops and used to destroy communications and railroads in an attempt to win the war for the North. Luckily for the Confederates, Keaton's Johnnie Gray was the General's conductor at the time and chased tirelessly, not only to liberate his beloved train from the Union but to give warning to the Confederacy and bring the advancing troops to a standstill. And whilst there may be a change of names and a little dramatisation, OK more than a little, the story doesn't waver too far from the events of the 'Great Locomotive Chase' of 1862, a hijack that resulted in the first medal of honor recipient.

Before watching 'The General', my only knowledge of Buster Keaton was a vague memory of a channel 4 list show (greatest movie stunts/comedy moments/worst cameo - something like that) and how he managed to be standing in the exact window space of the side of a falling-down house, as to not become instantly crushed. That and he shares his name with an above average Batman. Following the two Chaplin master works was indeed a formidable challenge but Johnnie Gray was certainly up to the challenge. It was also a timely reminder that, after watching a disappointingly bland 'Unstoppable' considering the powerhouse of the Scott/Washington/Pine combo, adventure films set on trains can actually be exciting.

We are introduced to Johnnie's 'two loves' right from the offset, his precious General and Annabelle, the sister of one of the first men to enlist when the civil war reaches home, causing Johnnie to quickly do he same. When he is refused for being too valuable to the South as a train-driver, she is heartbroken to find out (from her brother) that he didn't even try to enlist and is a coward. These kind of confusions work fantastically to vex the audience in many films as such simple measures can be taken to ensure understandings are made but it never happens - if Johnnie had simply asked why he had been rejected he could have returned proud to be of assistance and Annabelle would have never been offended by his cowardice. However, it can be argued that this misunderstanding helps turn Johnnie's passion for approval into the fuel he needs to single-handedly chase a dozen armed soldiers, rescue the girl and prevent a bloody ambush.


The film proceeds almost like a series of set pieces: there's the hilarious enlisting attempts, the misfiring canon, the acrobatics with sleepers, running over the train... the list goes on. Keaton's fearlessness and determination to achieve the most exciting stunts regularly left him close to death. As shown in the clip above, he would tell his cameramen to stop shooting until he "yelled cut or was killed". These moments remind me of Jackie Chan - another stuntman-turned-actor who received innumerous broken bones and injuries all the sake of his art. And of course what review would be complete without mentioning that the finale - the destruction of a flaming bridge when it collapses under the weight of a train - was the most expensive silent-movie stunt in history. If that wasn't enough, there is no lingering, slow-motion, multiple camera angle, look-at-me-look-at-me editing. It is simply a single long-shot, unfolding this part of the story and then we move on. It takes guts to spend that much money and use the footage exactly as it is required.

Having no other experience of Keaton's movies, I cannot say if 'The General' is one of his best or just another outstanding production by a master of timing, adventure and comedy, but it has certainly earned it's place on the top 250 list. And unless I encounter spectacle after spectacle from the IMDB's users' favourite films, I am sure this will end up in my top 30. Enjoy....

Movie - 8
Film - 8

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Anonymous said...

Hello there, my name is Niels De Vita and, like you, I have started a top 250 IMDB challenge.
I found your blog while checking out the one by Craig on blogspot.

I have only seen one movie with Buster Keaton and that was the hilarious "One Week" which is less known that the one you've reviewed, but hard to think it is any less deserving or praise.
Keaton's comedic stunt work is not only awe-inspiring, but always timed perfectly to get the big laugh. I think Keaton deserves more than what he gets in terms of recognition as he has proven me, with only one film, to have produced a simple yet effective comedic masterpiece that is hard to rival.
"One Week" should have been in the top 250.
As for "The General" goes, I guess you have made me want to watch it even more.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you in the future.


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