THE GENERAL (1926)

  • Directors: Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton
  • Writers: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, and Paul Gerard Smith, based on the non-fiction book The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
  • Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Smith, and Frank Barnes
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#18), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#34), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#18)
  • Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Kanopy (library app) and The Film Detective, Stream with subscription to Amazon Prime, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

If you had asked someone from 1926 what would be the one movie from their era that people in 90 years would be watching, The General would definitely not be the one they came up with. At the time of its release, it was seen as an expensive failure that nearly derailed Buster Keaton’s stellar career and directly resulted in his having to sign a contract with MGM, which he later wrote was “the biggest mistake of [his] career.” But Keaton’s reputation has since been rehabilitated to such a degree that such diverse luminaries as Orson Welles and Roger Ebert both listed him as their favorite comedian, and The General is fairly universally acknowledged as his masterpiece.

Keaton was known as “The Great Stone Face” because he rarely showed any emotions whatsoever. He came from the world of vaudeville, where learned that the more seriously he took his gags, the more audience laughed. His comedy was all physical, but not really slapstick in the modern sense. His most enduring gag (replicated in one of the Jackass movies as a tribute, which sadly modern viewers are probably more likely to have seen) involved an entire house falling around him in Steamboat Bill, Jr., with Keaton just happening to stand where a window fell. The thing that makes his movies feel unique is that he’s actually standing there doing everything. There’s no graphics, not even stunt men. For the shot in The General where he has to clear a loose tie off the track by throwing another tie at it just right while standing on the front “cow catcher” of a train, he actually stood there and did that, when there are so many ways that could have gone so badly wrong. If you wonder how he survived doing everything he does in his movies without hurting himself, the answer is he didn’t. He hurt himself frequently, as he did during this movie, but still insisted on doing the stunts.

The General still holds up to a modern viewer, though they might find jarring that Keaton is playing a Confederate named Johnny Gray, and that the “villains” of the movie (in the sense that they’re the opposing force to our hero) are Union soldiers. The film is actually a fairly close re-telling of an actual incident during the Civil War, which is good because otherwise its plot might be accused of being too far-fetched. Unlike, say, Birth of a Nation, I’m mostly willing to forgive the weird point of view here, given this combination of re-telling actual history and the fact the Union soldiers aren’t ever really presented as anything other than worthy adversaries. This isn’t so much a pro-Confederate film as it is an ode to the little guy in general.

Keaton plays an engineer in Georgia devoted to what are referred to by title cards as his “two loves,” the beautiful Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his locomotive, “The General.” When the Civil War breaks out, everyone in town joins the rebel army, but Keaton is rejected because, as a train engineer, he’s more valuable in his current job (the recruiters don’t bother to explain this to him). Annabelle tells him she “doesn’t want to see [him] again unless [he] is in uniform.” A year later both Keaton and Annabelle get caught up in a Union plot to steal “The General” and use it to burn down all the Confederate railroad bridges. They succeed (while Annabelle happens to be on board), but Keaton gives chase by bicycle, handcart, and finally another train. Eventually he catches up to them and steals his train back, at which point the chase reverses, with the Union guys chasing Keaton and Annabelle in what was originally Keaton’s train. Eventually Keaton is able to alert the Confederate generals to the Union plot, and in the movie’s big climax the Union train falls off a bridge into a river.

The General cost an astronomical sum for the time ($750,000), and didn’t make its money back at the box office. That cost makes sense when you think about the fact that to shoot a train falling off a bridge they literally dropped a train off a bridge. It was the most expensive single scene of the silent era of filmmaking. The train stayed there in a river in rural Oregon (where Keaton chose to shoot the movie because of the older style railroad there at the time) for a couple of decades as a tourist attraction before being broken down for scrap during World War II. There were other, dumber expenditures too: the movie had a settle a big lawsuit after one of the trains ran over a crew member’s foot. 

Keaton’s jokes are physical, but they are more clever than slapstick. Take the scene where he rides on the rod thingies that make the wheels go around on the train as the train gradually picks up speed (oblivious because he’s so depressed from Annabelle dumping him). This is less funny than super cool to look at. At the time of its release, The General was derided for not being funny enough, and I doubt it will be particularly “funny” to a modern viewer, either. Instead, Keaton comes off more like an action star than anything else. In some ways, the greatest of action stars, putting himself on the line doing crazy things. What really counts is that even more than 90 years after its release, The General feels constantly inventive and fun.

A word here, perhaps, on Keaton’s co-director on this movie, Clyde Bruckman. He was one of the more sought-after “gag men” of the 20s and 30s, collaborating not just with Keaton but with Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and Abbott and Costello. In his later years, however, he seemed to run out of ideas, and was repeatedly caught “recycling” jokes and routines in his later years, leading to multiple lawsuits. After he was fired for this reason from his final job (for a short-lived 1950s Abbott and Costello TV show), he borrowed Buster Keaton’s gun (with the excuse he needed it to go hunting), went home, and shot himself. He has remained doomed to always be far less famous than the performers he was writing for. One of the better known X-Files episodes would be named “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” about a character that knows how everyone is going to die. That character (played by Peter Boyle) also eventually shoots himself.

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