The General is the greatest of Buster Keaton’s features—his most inventive, ambitious, and perfectly crafted film. To say this is not simply to conjure up some scale of achievement, with The General at one end, and say, Battling Butler at the other. The General is more than a highpoint in a Keaton Continuum; it is also unique among his works. And this is thanks to a little man, Johnnie Gray, whom Keaton plays, at the centre of it all. Utterly capable, Johnnie Gray is no typical Keaton hero.
In fact, I’d trust Johnnie with my life.
Johnnie is a railroad engineer, living in what is about to be the Confederate States of America. He loves two things: ‘The General,’ his train; and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Annabelle loves the Confederate States of America. “I don’t want you to speak to me again you until you are in uniform,” she tells him, ignoring the fact that the South needs a skilled engineer more than one more piece of cannon fodder. And so he must prove himself.
The General is many things: an action film, a war movie, a chase, a caper; a romance (sort of) and of course, a slapstick comedy. What it is not, though, is a film about a man in search of his purpose. Because, while Johnnie might have to prove himself to Annabelle Lee, he needn’t prove himself to us. He lacks the flaws that handicap many of Keaton’s other heroes: he makes a living, seems dependent on no one (at least for money); he’s less oblivious. His weakness? He’s impetuous. But without that quality, Johnnie would probably be worse off in the end. Arguably, it’s Annabelle who must evolve as the film progresses—from pampered Southern belle to hands-on action sidekick, putting her patriotism into dirty practice.
Two chases form the bulk of The General. In the first, Johnnie pursues his own train, stolen by Union spies with the kidnapped Annabelle aboard; in the second, the Union is in pursuit, as Johnnie and Annabelle speed down the tracks to warn the Confederate army of coming disaster. First, Johnnie must save Annabelle. Upon doing that, he’ll save the South.
There is no better example of Keaton’s genius than the complexity of these chases. His options could not have been more limited: there is, after all, only one set of tracks, and two trains, of roughly equal speed, travelling along them. And yet, consider what he makes of it. Both pursuits are a series of misdirections, optical illusions, and traps, set and thwarted. In both chases, but particularly in the first, the trains’ inability to move laterally becomes the basis for the most brilliant gags.
When you’re on a train, most times, you can only see the front of a train behind you. And so, when the Unions spies high-tail it with Annabelle onboard, and Johnnie gives chase in his single engine, the spies are unaware that he is travelling alone. Why would they assume it? Until that track loops, their point of view will prevent them from knowing how little they’re up against.
This element allows for one of Keaton’s best moments—certainly the funniest in The General. Early in the first chase, Johnnie’s train is towing a small artillery car, carrying one cannon and several balls. The cannon is on a hinge, allowing it to fire at different angles. After packing the cannon more than adequately with powder, Johnnie positions it to what he figures will be the ideal angle for a direct hit on the stolen Union engine. But the terrain is bumpy. The cannon’s muzzle dips, leisurely, downward… until it is aiming directly at Johnnie’s own boiler. The next moments are a desperate scramble: Johnnie tries to unbolt the artillery car from his engine, but that’s useless, really, since the track will keep them both aligned. His peril is ended only when a veer in the track puts Johnnie out of range—and the Union train into range. The ball misses, but not by much, and the enemy soldiers are now convinced that an army is after them.
I try not to over-intellectualize Keaton’s work. Some of his fans do this, as though his gift for delivering ingenious gags with broad reach isn’t testament enough to his greatness. You could argue, though, that The General’s first chase is meant to be a metaphor for Johnnie’s life up to that point. The perception both Annabelle and the Union spies have of Johnnie is faulty: it’s limited by their perspective, and their assumptions. By the end of the chase, when Johnnie has liberated Annabelle from the Union headquarters, everyone knows better. But I’ll leave it at that.
And there is a body count. Johnnie is the only Keaton hero who kills, in the literal sense. Two of those deaths would’ve occurred in the bridge collapse—the scene you remember best from the film, if you’ve seen it. The one in which the Union forces attempt to cross a metres-tall wooden bridge that Johnnie and Annabelle have set on fire. The officers believe the bridge will support the weight of their train just long enough. They miscalculate. The burning timbers give way and the train plunges into the gorge, annihilated as it hits the water below: a mess of scrap metal, fire, steam and mud, and unemphasized human wreckage.
That train was no scale model, by the way. You could find remnants of it for years afterward, near Cottage Grove, Oregon, where the scene was filmed. I expect, if you dug around long enough, you still could. It is one more way The General persists: a trivial but charming physical detail amidst the massive reverence in which the film has long been held by critics, filmmakers and casual fans alike. (Orson Welles called it one of the greatest films ever made; Roger Ebert and so many others have concurred.) For me, it is Keaton at his best, and that is saying a great deal.
Almost everything you like about Keaton is here—anything you like about silent comedy, also, here. And something else. Johnnie Gray: a man who knew how to drive his own engine, and stop another one from destroying everything he cared about—even if that was only two things: a train and a girl.
Where to find The General:
Kino Lorber’s “Ultimate Edition” of The General is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
I had the good fortune of seeing The General on the big screen, this past April 9, as part of the 2013 Toronto Silent Film Festival. The screening took place the Revue Cinema, with accompaniment provided by the Australian quartet, Viola Dana. The Dana’s score was a memorable one, evoking urgency through rhythm, and your appreciation of it will depend, I think, on how serious a film you consider The General to be.
One of the advantages of watching silent films, of course—especially iconic ones, like The General—is that you can experience familiar images in new ways, through new scores. Scores are, after all, someone else’s interpretation of the film you’re watching. For a film so worthy of debate as The General, this is always welcome.