Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#42 - The General

BACK-STORY: “The General” is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece although it took a while for the critics and public to realize that. The movie was a commercial and critical bomb when it was released in 1926. Thankfully Keaton lived to see the revival of its reputation in the 1960s. Recently the American Film Institute ranked it the 18th greatest film and the 18th greatest comedy (don’t ask). This must have been heartening since he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced it. He based it on The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger. Keaton used 500 Ohio National Guardsmen for the battle scene and even had them switch uniforms to give the armies more size.  Needless to say Keaton did all his own stunts and several were dangerous.

OPENING: Keaton is a Southern railroad engineer named Johnnie Gray (get it?). His co-star is his engine, the General. His train arrives in Marietta, Georgia in the spring of 1861. He goes to visit his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack). Word arrives about Fort Sumter and everyone is excited. Annabelle’s father and brother rush off to enlist. “Aren’t you going to enlist?” Sealed with a kiss. Off goes Johnnie. He cuts to the head of the line, but is turned down because engineers are deferred. Only he is not told this (for plot purposes) and is crestfallen. Annabelle assumes he is a coward and breaks off their relationship.

SUMMARY: One year later, Union General Thatcher agrees to a bold plan by civilian scout/spy Anderson (Glen Cavender) to cut the rail link between Atlanta and Chattanooga by stealing a locomotive and wreaking havoc on the rail line. This will aid the Union’s assault on Chattanooga.

Johnnie is determined to get his first love back
      Anderson and his team hijack the General in Big Shanty and kidnap Annabelle in the process. Johnnie gives chase in a hand-cart and then a bike. Later he gets another train and hooks up a mortar. The movie cuts back and forth between Johnnie and Anderson. Anderson’s men cut the telegraph line, drop ties on the track, and set fire to a car - leaving it on a bridge. Nothing stops Johnnie, however. Several gags are incorporated into the chase. For instance, at one point, Johnnie chops wood and misses both the Union army and the Confederate army passing by.

      Johnnie gets trapped behind enemy lines. He sneaks into a house and hides under a table. Union officers and Anderson come in and discuss plans. Annabelle is brought in and locked in a room. Johnnie disguises himself as a Union soldier and rescues Annabelle. There is comedy gold involving a bear trap. The next morning they find themselves in the middle of the Union army. He hides Annabelle in a sack that is thrown onto the General and he then steals it back. This time Anderson is doing the chasing. It’s almost a mirror image of the original chase. Johnnie tries some of the same things Anderson did.

the spectacular train crash
       Johnnie sets fire to a bridge between enemy lines and then alerts the Rebel army which rushes off to confront the Yankees. The Yankee general sends his supply train across the bridge which results in a spectacular crash into the river. This was the most expensive stunt in filmdom up until then and the engine remained in the river until WWII.

CLOSING: There is a big battle as the Union army tries to cross the river. There is lots of cannon fire and smoke. Remarkably (or maybe not), the scene is similar to the bridge scene in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. There is some funny stuff involving a broken sword. Johnnie captures a Union general, is promoted, and gets the girl. Surprise!


Acting - 7

Action - 7

Accuracy - 7

Realism – 7

Plot - 7

Overall - 7

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on their feelings about silent movie comedies. They also need to have a sense of humor that appreciates old-school slapstick humor. The movie does have a romance, but Keaton is not exactly Brad Pitt. It certainly is not graphically bloody.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is actually fairly accurate in depicting the famous Andrews Raid in the Civil War. James Andrews and a group of Yankee volunteers hijacked the General at Big Shanty in April, 1862. The plan was to damage the rail line and to facilitate the Union offensive against Chattanooga. The General's engineer William Allen Fuller gave chase after his engine on foot, then hand-cart, then on the locomotive Yonah and later the William R. Smith. Meanwhile, Andrews’ men were doing the damage depicted in the movie. Broken tracks forced Fuller back on foot until he acquired the Texas. Fuller had to drive the Texas backwards, but he did gain ground on the General.

       Andrews’ mission ended in failure because Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave him time to effectively destroy the rail line. There was some bad luck involved as well. For instance, the attempt to burn a key bridge failed because the wood was wet from a recent rain. A flaming boxcar left on the bridge was pushed off by Fuller.  Alas, there was no spectacular train wreck. Just a few miles from Chattanooga, the General ran out of fuel. Andrews and his men abandoned it and fled on foot, but they all were captured and treated as spies. Andrews and seven of the men were executed. Eight later escaped and six were exchanged. The first Medals of Honor were awarded to the Andrews Raiders.

CRITIQUE: We are told that “The General” is a masterpiece, but if you weren’t told this you might miss that fact. It strikes me as more of a curio than a masterpiece. Although it holds up much better than most silent movies, I feel modern war movie lovers will wonder what all the fuss is about. It helps to know the effort that Keaton put into it – the National Guardsmen, the train crash, the stunts, etc.  The movie is also admirably authentic in its weapons, uniforms, and equipment. You also learn how a train works which is a nice touch.

      The movie has a lack of subtitles which forces the watcher to concentrate. That is a plus to me, but a turnoff to others. The cinematography is fine. The acting is spotty. Keaton, of course, is brilliant with his stoical persona. However, the supporting cast is your typical overly emotive silent movie actors. Mack is particularly weak. Parts of the movie drag.  For instance, the second chase is tedious and recycles elements from the first chase.

      The big question is whether the movie is funny. Well, it is certainly not funny enough to be ranked the 18th funniest movie of all time. Most of the slapstick is on the silly side. There is a lot of falling down. Some of the sight gags are amazing. This includes the iconic sight of Keaton sitting on the drive shaft between the wheels as the train moves. The movie made me smile in spots, but seldom laugh. One of the funnier aspects of the film is how roughly Johnnie treats Annabelle. At least I think that was supposed to be funny. Keaton deserves credit for seamlessly blending the comedy into the narrative. The gags are not just thrown in to add humor periodically.

CONCLUSION: “The General” is another example of how the editors of Military History magazine must have meant the 100 Most Important War Movies instead of 100 Greatest. It was a great movie when it came out, but cannot be considered such now.  Also, as a war comedy, it is not in a league with Dr. Strangelove (#84)  However, all war movie lovers should see it because of its place in war movie history.

Keaton stunts!

the full movie - enjoy!


  1. Good distinction, important versus great. I can really see how this applies here. I wouldn't mind watching it but I'm not very keen either. I have seen silent movies that I found very impressive although no war movies ones. Although, Battleship Potemkin is silent as well, right? How many are there on the list two, three? I can't remember how many you've reviewed already.
    Historically it's certainly important but I never found Bustor Keaton very funny to be honest.

  2. the war movie buffMarch 8, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    The silent ones are:
    #58 - The Big Parade
    #56 - Scipio Africanus
    #47 - Battleship Potemkin
    #37 - Napoleon
    #11 - Wings

    I have reviewed the first three and they are all better than The General.

    If I did not believe the magazine was thinking important instead of best, I would be very upset with the rankings.

  3. I would like to see No 37 but can't find it. It's extremely famous but very long. I've herad so good things of Wings.

  4. the war movie buffMarch 9, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    I also have not been able to find Napoleon. I cannot imagine that I will find that Wings belongs at #11!

  5. I thoroughly enjoy the depth to which you analyzed this film and you bring up excellent points about its comedic relevance to a contemporary audience. I just watched it a few nights ago and laughed out loud the entire time, of course, that might only suggest I was in the mood for such comedy at that exact time.

    What I will say in defending its slot in rankings, considering that it often places high on even non-war related movie lists, is that, as a director, Keaton was willing to experiment with cinematography in powerful ways. We see this in the great match cut between him dropping logs off the back of the train followed by the Union soldiers yanking it off immediately after. It is a simple effect by today's standards, but that probably blew audiences away circa 1926. Furthermore, the train crash was all real and cost more money than any other sequence in the entire silent film era, not to mention the train stayed at the bottom of the lake well into WW2. It is just a super cool thing to realize that there is no CGI in a film like The General and that Keaton's athleticism was not aided by special effects. It is something lost on more recent films. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed your review and look forward to reading other items on your blog.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.