Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The General (1927)
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Background

The General (1927) is an imaginative masterpiece of dead-pan "Stone-Face" Buster Keaton comedy, generally regarded as one of the greatest of all silent comedies (and Keaton's own favorite) - and undoubtedly the best train film ever made. The Civil War adventure-epic classic was made toward the end of the silent era. Posters describing the slapstick film heralded: "Love, Locomotives and Laughs." However, Keaton's greatest picture (arguably) received both poor reviews by critics (it was considered tedious and disappointing) and weak box-office results (about a half million dollars domestically, and approximately one million worldwide) when initially released in the late 20s, and it led to Keaton's loss of independence as a film-maker and a restrictive deal with MGM. It would take many decades for the film to be hailed as one of the best ever made.

Filled with hilarious sight gags and perfectly timed stunt work, the chase comedy was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, and filmed with a huge budget for its time ($750,000 supplied by Metro chief Joseph Schenck). It is memorable for its strong story-line of a single, brave, but foolish Southern Confederate train engineer doggedly in pursuit of his passionately-loved locomotive ("The General") AND the woman he loves. His stoic, unflappable reactions to fateful calamities, his ingenious and resourceful uses of machines and various objects (water tanks, a large piece of timber, a cowcatcher, a rolling artillery cannon on wheels, and unattached railroad cars), and the unpredictable forces of Nature, provide much of the plot.

The film's fictionalized plot was based on Lieut. William Pittenger's Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure (aka The Great Locomotive Chase), a true Civil War story of the daring raid/seizure by a group of about two-dozen Union spies (led by civilian spy James J. Andrews) of a Confederate train near Atlanta (at Marietta, Georgia) in April of 1862. They attempted to ride "The General" back into the Union, meanwhile wrecking communications, tracks, and bridges along the return way to Union-occupied Chattanooga (about 140 miles away). Within just 10 miles of safety at the border, the Union group was captured and Andrews and seven of his Raiders were later hanged as spies in Atlanta in June, 1862. Congress created the Medal of Honor in 1861-62 and posthumously awarded it to some of the Raiders (James Andrews, leader of the raiders, was not in the military and therefore not eligible).

The original tale (told from a Northern perspective) was reworked for the film - the tale was told from the point of view of the South and a Southern engineer, a second return train-chase was added, and a heroine named after Edgar Allan Poe's Annabelle Lee was also introduced. A second film was also made to depict the raid - Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), with Fess Parker as mastermind Union spy James J. Andrews.

The General displays marvelous technical and structural perfection, playful comic inventiveness and realistic romance, and non-chalant graceful, fluid athleticism on the part of Keaton - the Great Stone Face. Realistic stunts (without stuntmen to double for Keaton), uncontrived, free-flowing set-pieces, non-stop motion, and a preoccupation with authenticity make parts of the film a visual history of the American Civil War, with each shot looking like a Matthew Brady photograph. Part of the film was shot near Cowan, Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga. Another locale for the film was around Cottage Grove, Oregon alongside Oregon's Row River, where a half-mile stretch of narrow-gauge track was found for the two ancient, wood-burning, steam locomotives that figured prominently in the film (the General and the Texas). [The original antique locomotive, the General, on display in Chattanooga at Union Station since 1911, was not used in the film. The Texas was the locomotive that used for the river-gorge crash sequence.]

Each half of the film is predominantly composed of two train chases over the same territory. Each scene in the chase of the first half has a counterpart in the film's second half. In the first chase, loyal Southern engineer Johnnie pursues the blue-coated spies who have stolen The General and escaped to the North. In the second half, the Union spies chase Johnnie in his re-possessed General back to the South. The film concludes with a climactic battle at a river gorge, with the dramatic crash of the pursuit train into the Rock River in the film's most spectacular scene - and the most expensive shot of the entire silent era.

The Story

The Prologue:

A subtitle card begins the film: "The Western and Atlantic Flyer speeding into Marietta, Ga., in the Spring of 1861." In 1861 on the eve of the Civil War, against the breath-taking backdrop of mountains and pine forests in an extreme long-shot, engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) serves as the proud engineer in the cab of the Western and Atlantic Flyer R.R. Company's Southern locomotive, The General. He fastidiously flicks dust from the ledge of the cab window, next to his assistant. His train, with a large brass nameplate ("General") gracefully pulls into the sunlit trainyard in Marietta, Georgia - on time. Two young neighborhood boys idolize Johnnie and his train, shake hands with him, and imitate his motions. Crowds of people with heavy trunks disembark from the passenger cars, and some of the people wave as they depart.

There were two loves in his life. His engine, And -

Johnnie's second love is his girlfriend - in closeup, an oval framed picture of Annabelle Lee hangs in the engineer's compartment of the locomotive. He slips the picture into his coat pocket as he prepares to change into his street clothes. The next show is a medium shot of Annabelle Lee herself (Marion Mack), standing in front of a picket fence that is also in front of a rose trellis. Someone off-camera hands a book to Annabelle.

The effete conductor of the train methodically marches down the sidewalk to his girlfriend's home, trailed in a 'train' procession by two adoring boys who worship him and imitatively remove their hats as they pass other townsfolk. His profession follows him wherever he goes. His girlfriend is returning from the local library - she hides behind a tree and after they've passed, she joins in step behind the three of them like the caboose on a train. They enter the white picket fence gate of a large Grecian home with Johnnie in the lead. He sidesteps a flower bed and approaches the front door on the porch.

At Annabelle's front door, Johnnie spruces himself up - he polishes the tops of his shoes on the backs of his trousers legs and primps. After knocking, he turns sideways and notices Annabelle behind him on the porch. Without jumping back or becoming startled, he stares fixedly at her with great interest - with the famous deadpan, blank Keaton look. She walks to the door, opens it, and invites him in. In the parlor inside the house while sitting next to her on the sofa in the foreground, he decides to be rid of the two boys on another side sofa so that he can court his girlfriend in private. He contrives to trick them to exit the room by having them mechanistically repeat his movements as they have already. He rises, dons his hat as if to leave, courteously opens the door, and then shuts it behind them as they file out. Back on the sofa next to Annabelle, he pulls out a rectangular picture from his coat pocket, and presents her with the framed photo of himself in front of his beloved General - that she appreciatively mounts upright on a table.

Two doors open simultaneously into the parlor: a son (Frank Barnes) enters from the front porch, and a edgy and nervous father (Charles Smith) enters from an inside room. The son delivers the message of war to his father and both leave to enlist:

Son: Fort Sumter has been fired upon.
Father: Then the war is here.
Son: Yes, dad, and I'm going to be one of the first to enlist.
Annabelle Lee: (after kissing her patriotic, dutiful brother and father goodbye) (To Johnnie) Aren't you going to enlist?

At the door after they have left, a worried Annabelle Lee twists the ends of her white bodice collar. Johnnie - who is frozen in place on the sofa, is asked about his intentions. He obligingly rises, bumbles around the room, and readies himself to also leave to enlist for the Confederate South. Annabelle Lee kisses him, as she did her brother and father, and as Johnnie leaves, he makes a gallant gesture with one arm upward - and falls backwards off the front porch.

To get to the recruiting office in downtown Marietta, he rushes through crowds on the street and cleverly takes a side alley so that he can be the first in line to enlist. But when he enters the store/office, he appears to lose his foremost place in line. Using the same kind of maneuver he used outside (and also with the two boys), he triumphantly sidetracks the normal route to the enlistment window by walking over two tables to regain his place. When asked at the counter window: "Your name?" and "Occupation?", he identifies himself: "Johnnie Gray...Engineer on the Western and Atlantic Railroad". But he is rejected by an elderly, white-haired superior [who later appears as a Southern general] who believes that his engineering skill would be more valuable to the South:

Don't enlist him. He is more valuable to the South as an engineer.

After only being told, "We can't use you," Johnnie is unaware of the real reason for his rejection and believes the refusal is based on physical grounds. He measures his height and strength against others who are accepted, and then enters the line again. Johnnie tries to disguise his appearance by tilting his hat over his face and using a different name and occupation: "William Brown, Bartender." However, he is recognized and sent on his way home. He attempts to steal someone else's enlistment papers, but is caught by the recruiting director and literally kicked out. Spiteful and holding his bruised rear-end, he warns the white-haired gent:

If you lose this war don't blame me.

Annabelle's father and brother are outside standing in line and they invite him to join them in the queue, but he declines, rubs his sore backside, turns away defeated, and returns disconsolate to his faithful locomotive. They suspect the worst and they DO blame him - they believe that he is a disgraceful coward. In front of Annabelle's house, Johnnie's girlfriend asks her brother and father: "Did Johnnie enlist?" She learns of their scornful opinion of her boyfriend: "He didn't even get in line...He's a disgrace to the South." In Annabelle's house, as her father sorts through mail from the post office (he keeps two letters and then tosses the third to the floor - in a recurring pattern), he tosses Johnnie's framed photograph away.

Not knowing that he has been found unsuitable as a soldier because of his valued occupation, she approaches Johnnie as he is sitting uncomfortably on the crossbar of the locomotive engine to confront him - and shun him. As she twists her collar, Annabelle contemptuously rebuffs and spurns Johnnie after he has been rejected as a soldier without allowing him any opportunity to explain. She doesn't know that he will end up as a civilian engineer in the war effort:

Annabelle Lee: Why didn't you enlist?
Johnnie: They wouldn't take me.
Annabelle Lee: Please don't lie - I don't want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform.

In a visually simple scene, one of the most famous and memorable moments in the film - and in all of Keaton's films, Johnnie sits back down dejectedly and disconsolately on the connecting, driving bar between the wheels of his huge locomotive. Unbeknowst to sad Johnnie since he is so deeply depressed, his assistant engineer has climbed up into the cab and started up the General's engine. As it begins to move forward, Johnnie's unmoving, dwarfed frame is carried along on the crossbar, brought up and down three times in a lilting series of arcs, before he suddenly realizes what is going on - a perfect image for the complex, emotional feelings he is experiencing, and the comfort he is receiving from his animated, responsive train. As the locomotive passes into the roundhouse (train shed) and he is slowly propelled inside, he solemnly expresses astonishment, sadness, and amusement. He disappears from view into the darkness - an apt metaphor for his rejection.

The Main Story:

A subtitle card identifies the new locale for the next sequence in the film that occurs within a two-day period:

A year later.
In a Union encampment just North of Chattanooga.

Seated at a table, Union General Thatcher (Jim Farley) is told by his chief spy, cigar-smoking gentleman Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) that he has hatched a plot to disguise ten Northern soldiers as civilians and infiltrate the South:

I know every foot of this railroad from Marietta to Chattanooga - and with ten picked men I cannot fail. (He points to the map with his cigar) We will enter the South as civilians coming from the neutral state of Kentucky to join the Southern cause.

Anderson gestures toward the map that displays the sites of future action in the film: In the South, Marietta, Georgia (slightly North from Atlanta) is linked by rail to the Northern town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In between (from South to North) are the railstops of Big Shanty, Kingston, a river crossing, Calhoun, another river crossing, Dalton, and a third river crossing.

The Yankee plan is to capture and hijack the Confederate train (Johnnie's Western and Atlantic Flyer) in Big Shanty Georgia, ride it back to Union lines and connect with advancing Union forces in Chattanooga under General Parker. They plan to wreak havoc along the way and destroy telegraph lines and bridges behind them:

Captain Anderson: At Big Shanty we will steal the train while the passengers and crew are at dinner, and proceeding North we will burn every bridge, cutting off the supplies of the army now facing you.
General Thatcher: Then the day you steal the train I will have General Parker advance to meet you.

After a fade out and a fade in, the scene is back at the Marietta, Georgia train station. Annabelle Lee, still estranged from Johnnie, boards Johnnie's train, traveling as a passenger to visit her injured father. She tells her uniformed, wounded brother with his left arm in a sling as she departs: "As soon as I arrive I will let you know how seriously father is wounded." At the front of the train, Johnnie is eyed with a demeaning, humiliating look from Annabelle and her brother. In full view of Johnnie, she touches and admires the war medal pinned on the front of her brother's Confederate jacket. With intolerable disgust, she snubs Johnnie even further, regarding him as an unharmed, unpatriotic bystander.

During the train journey, Annabelle happens to be seated next to Captain Anderson - the Union spy. Along the way at their first stop - the Big Shanty train station, the train (filmed in a long shot) rolls into the station and stops "twenty minutes for dinner." Many of the passengers leave the train for their mid-day meal, walking across a field to the station house. A number of other suspicious-looking, well-dressed gentlemen/spies (including Captain Anderson) debark the train but they leisurely saunter next to the train, waiting for the right time to strike. After looking inside her purse for something, Annabelle Lee returns un-noticed to the first baggage car of the train to retrieve an item from her trunk. In preparation for his meal, Johnnie soaps up his hands in a wash basin against the outside wall of the station's depot.


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