Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The General (1927)
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The Story (continued)

In the second half of the film, Johnnie must return over the same territory (with the same landmarks and variations on earlier gags) that he already covered in the first half of the film. Notice the similarities: Annabelle is again a 'prisoner' in the baggage car, the General is again hijacked, and there is a pursuit train (under Captain Anderson's command) in another extended chase sequence. However, the difference is that Johnnie has become an expert military soldier-engineer.

After Captain Anderson notices what has happened, he gives chase in The Texas and commands his subordinates to follow:

I will get that spy before he reaches the Southern lines. You follow with the supply trains as planned.

Johnnie is pursued by two Northern trains (The Texas and behind that a supply train named the Columbia) back to the South.

As in the first chase sequence - a short distance down the track - Johnnie jumps off the train with amazing acrobatic agility, takes a rope and lassos a track-side telegraph pole, and then attaches the rope to the top of the boxcar at the rear of his train. When the locomotive pulls away, it dislodges and pulls down the pole. He cuts the rope with an axe, leaving the pole across the tracks. These two actions cause a major disruption of the telegraph communications of the Union soldiers, and block his pursuer's path.

Some of the actions are repetitions of the earlier chase sequence. With an axe, he hacks a window/hole through the front wall of the boxcar to get to Annabelle Lee and rescue her. But because he doesn't know where she is, he frantically stomps over everything while searching for her. After stepping on her, her head pops out of the sack and she is finally freed. She is still holding the pin she pulled from the train to separate the cars - he snatches it and tosses it away. It is an amusing struggle to maneuver her body through the small opening of the boxcar onto the tender. As he stands on the coupling links and coaxes her to climb onto his shoulders, he gets a face-full of her petticoats, and then finally manages to tip her onto the tender.

As they are pursued by Union forces, he suggests to her:

We must pick up more firewood.

He stops the train and starts gathering and hurling long planks of firewood from a split-rail fence closeby. Meanwhile, Annabelle shows some agility by running atop the tender and boxcar. Some of the planks hit their target in the tender, others uncooperatively fall off. As he is engaged in dis-assembling the fence and loading the wood, a well-intentioned, but inept Annabelle Lee (stereotyped and parodied as a foolish, dependent female) is humorously more of a detriment than a help in aiding him. To set a trap for the Union train in pursuit, she stretches a flimsy piece of rope between two small pine saplings on either side of the tracks - presumably to stop (snare or delay) the train. Meanwhile, the chase train, the Texas, is stalled when it stops to remove the telegraph pole lying on the tracks. When Johnnie notices Annabelle's handiwork, he tugs on (and plucks at) the thin rope to test it and demonstrate how ineffectual her idea is, and then stands with his hands on his hips in a prolonged reaction shot - silently exasperated.

He grabs her by the hand and they rush back to The General's locomotive when they see the approaching Texas locomotive. He kneels and offers her his open outstretched palm to assist her climb into the locomotive cab, but she ignores him and leaps up without assistance. After being needlessly chivalrous, Johnnie ignores the steps and scrambles headfirst through the window of the cab. In one economical motion, his maneuver jerks the throttle of the locomotive to set it into motion.

When the pursuit train plows directly into the rope between the two trees, it actually delays the locomotive's chase, although not in the way Annabelle had intended. The Texas uproots the trees and catches them in the train's wheels along the sides, and the soldiers riding on the outside of the engine are lashed to it. The train must stop to dislodge the pine trees from the train's revolving wheels and disengage the immobilized, struggling Union soldiers.

Johnnie takes his axe and chops off the entire back wall of his boxcar, sending it onto the tracks along with the Northerner's own supplies of boxes, barrels, and cases - more impediments to slow down the pursuit train (as in the first chase sequence). They are forced to busy themselves clearing the tracks. As Johnnie returns to the cab where Annabelle has been alone at the controls, Union General Thatcher begins to stir on the floor. From off-camera, Johnnie drops a log on the officer's head as he leaps from the tender into the cab, rendering Thatcher unconscious again. Johnnie also removes the general's pistol, and in a corner of the cab discovers the Confederate uniform that Captain Anderson had removed when entering Union territory.

Another repetition of earlier events occurs at a water tower (Johnnie was drenched earlier during the first chase). The overhanging, long waterspout becomes disconnected as they struggle with it. Annabelle Lee is doused from behind rather than filling the General's watertank. She is soaked a second time when Johnnie attaches the spout to the pipe. As they get on their way when The Texas approaches, Johnnie forgets (purposely?) to turn off the water - the loose waterspout splashes Captain Anderson and the Union soldiers on the first train, and soaks three officers sitting at a makeshift table on the open flatcar of the second supply train as they pass the tower.

The next sequence is a brilliant interplay of humor, inventiveness, and tender grace - one of the most memorable and romantic moments in film. Desperately short on firewood for fuel to stoke the fire, Johnnie turns and notices Annabelle Lee when she comes across a very large piece of wood with an ugly knothole in it. Nonchalantly, she rejects the unpleasing, defective log and tosses it overboard. (Anderson orders soldiers to crawl forward to the cowcatcher of their train.) To be domestic, she also tidies up the floor of the locomotive cab by sweeping away woodchips with a broom. Johnnie glares at her, grabs the broom from her and tosses it aside, suggesting to her - by pantomime - to stoke the fire instead. To comply, she picks up what she judges to be a more acceptable piece of wood - a short, pencil-thin stick. She carefully lays it inside the boiler fire. To add irony to the situation, he mimics her gestures, picks up an even smaller toothpick-sized piece of wood, hands it to her, and lets her toss it into the fire. With almost savage fury and exasperation, he half-playfully grabs for her by the neck, throttles and shakes her violently for a second (feigning strangling his dream girl), and then swiftly plants a small, loving kiss on her lips. A long-shot of the Union pursuit train, the Texas, speeding and catching up to the General jars the audience back to the emergency at hand.

Complex maneuvers and couplings are skillfully choreographed in the next sequence involving three trains. The Texas overtakes the General and one of the soldiers on the cowcatcher couples it to the boxcar at the rear of Johnnie's train - just as the camera pans ahead to show that Johnnie is disconnecting the baggage car from the rest of the train! The General pulls away and leaves a bigger gap between them.

The baggage car in front of The Texas is now an impediment - it is sent down a side track after the Union soldiers throw a switch. As they are making the adjustment to get rid of the loose car and are backing up onto the main track, the Union supply train (the Columbia) collides with them from behind - crunching its cowcatcher. The officers on the flatcar are sent reeling. As they stand up, they are again tumbled to the floor when the train jerks into motion.

Up ahead, Johnnie stops his train and gets off, throws a switch to send the two pursuit trains off onto a sidetrack, and sabotages the tracks by twisting them (with the chain hanging off the back of the tender) and permanently bending them into a switched position. Annabelle Lee, left to her own devices in the locomotive, is signaled to pull the throttle. The chain snaps and the General takes off without him, and she doesn't know how to stop it. He chases after it on foot - taking a short-cut overland down a steep, curving hill to get in front of it so he can board, but finds that Annabelle has again maneuvered the throttle and reversed the engine - it now backs up - so he instantly reverses himself and scrambles back up his steep short-cut. At the top of the hill, he jumps back on the front of the train, now moving in reverse.

In a visually difficult and intriguing sight gag involving three moving trains, it appears that there will be a cataclysmic collision - the General is converging rapidly toward the two charging pursuit trains. But they don't collide - just a few feet before the broken switch point, Johnnie brakes his train. The two Union trains just miss the General coming at them in reverse - they both shoot up an unfinished, dead-end inclined ramp on the side track at the switchpoint and the second Union train (the Columbia) rams into The Texas. Soldiers suspended on the cowcatcher on the first train hang on for dear life above thin air at the end of the track. The Texas reverses itself on the inclined track, bumping the train behind it and upending the officers on the flatcar. Johnnie again takes off in the General - the bent tracks delay the Union chase and give the General some time to escape. The Northerners gather around the bent rail at the switchpoint and contemplate what to do. As the General rolls along, Johnnie removes the lantern from the front of the locomotive.

The Rock River Bridge:

The next sequence is another stunning example of the film's clever ingenuity. Johnnie guides his train to rest in the sagging center of the Rock River Bridge - a high trestle-bridge spanning a wide river. He scrambles onto the bridge, while Annabelle stands high atop the tender, tossing down logs. He constructs a pyre of firewood logs on the tracks behind his train to cut off the Northern pursuit. One log she tosses down is so small that he throws it back at her. In the meantime, General Parker's Union troops (the ones that had passed Johnnie earlier) approach on horseback and on foot:

The Northern division nearing the bridge to meet the supply trains.

Maneuvering from trestle to trestle, Johnnie splashes the wood pyre with kerosene fuel from the locomotive's head-lamp. As he stands on the far side of the pyre, Annabelle Lee inadvertently knocks over a burning kindling timber (the ignitor was resting on the edge of the tender) onto the pyre before he is ready, and flames blaze and leap up immediately. The burning woodpile and wall of fire trap him, separating him from the train's tender and Annabelle. With dubious judgment, she decides to set the train in motion - at exactly the same moment that he makes a desperate, calculated leap over the flames to reach the train. Instead of landing on the tender, he plunges through the trestle bridge and splashes into the water below. After swimming to the bank of the river, he climbs up and reboards the locomotive cab that Annabelle has ably put in reverse. Fortunately, the Union forces are still delayed at the switchpoint where Johnnie bent the rails.

Although they have crossed Southern lines and Johnnie waves at a track-side Confederate soldier, he is fired at because he has forgotten to remove his disguise - Union soldier's clothing. With Annabelle's quick-thinking advise to change his clothing, he dons the gray Confederate uniform he found in the cab (the one that Northern spy Captain Anderson used to disguise himself). Johnnie is finally properly outfitted with a Southern Army uniform.

Soon, they reach a small town that is the site of the Divisional Headquarters of the Southern encampment. He sounds the alarm - white steam bellows from the train in short spurts. From the top of the back of the tender, Johnnie raises his arm and alerts the Southern troops - everyone scurries. Johnnie runs to the headquarters building and gestures to the white-haired Confederate general (Frederick Vroom) that there is an impending Union advance. [This is the same gentlemen from the enlistment office that denied Johnnie's volunteering.]

Johnnie proposes an ambush at the bridge for the Union train and army that he has lured there. As the troops are ordered out, he and Annabelle help outfit the senile, white-haired general with his hat, gloves and sword and assist him to mount his horse. The Southern troops and other generals on horseback, a horse-drawn cannon, foot-soldiers, and other military equipment create clouds of dust as they charge down the road to the burning Rock River Bridge. Women and children are cheering from the sidelines. Everyone ignores the heroes who have warned them, and they are almost run down by the hurrying forces - Johnnie attempts to protect the two of them from being trampled.

When Annabelle Lee sees her wounded father (seated behind a white picket fence) and is reunited with him, Johnnie is left standing alone in the middle of the dusty street. As the dust settles, he looks all the way around, realizing that no one else is coming. He puts his hands in his pockets - and then notices a discarded, unwieldy, damaged sword lying in the dirt. Determined to be a soldier, Johnnie heroically straps on and trips/falls over the weapon, following after the procession of troops and taking his place in the Confederate ranks. The befuddled, incompetent Northerners cannot solve the problem of the twisted, sabotaged track. Finally, it is fixed by a civilian engineer (without a uniform) who whacks the rail with one whack from an axe and repositions the track.

General Parker's Union army, on foot, and the two Union pursuit locomotives (with their cargos of munitions and troops) all converge at the merrily-blazing bridge. The Texas's engineer hesitates to go further, until Parker on horseback boldly and sternly orders Captain Anderson and The Texas to cross the slightly-damaged bridge:

That bridge is not burned enough to stop you, and my men will ford the river.

The Union cavalry on horseback and footsoldiers will descend the bank to the water's edge and cross the river beneath the bridge.

In an unbelievable sequence filmed in long-shot - and most likely the most expensive sight gag in silent film history at $42,000 - (it was filmed in a single take that had to be perfect with an actual full-scale train - not a miniature, and a 'dummy' engineer at the controls), the pursuit train confidently moves forward onto the now-feeble, burned-through bridge. When the train is half-way across, the bridge weakens, sways, and then gives way. The belly of the train droops and falls downwards through the burning portion of the bridge as it opens wide under its weight. Both the train and collapsing bridge plunge into the river, a mass of hurtling metal, exhaling/hissing smokestack steam, burning bridge logs, spraying water and a geyser of belching smoke.

The next quick cut is a medium, close-up reaction shot of the stolid General Parker still astride his horse - his stunned, bewildered face reveals his disbelief, annoyance and frustration that he was wrong as he looks on at the painful doom of the ruined, fallen train. As the Union general turns back to his men, his officers stare back accusingly. [The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is almost as spectacular.]

He slowly draws his sword, and petulantly waves it to order his men to proceed with the attack. By this time, the gray-coated Southern troops have approached the bridge on the opposite bank. The Confederate general orders his men to fire. A tremendous battle ensues with cannon-fire and a vicious Southern counter-attack. The Union cavalry retreats back from Rock River.

On the frontlines of the battleground, Johnnie is completely inept - he fights more with his sword than with the opponent. He parodies the swordsmanship of the aged Confederate general - he brandishes his own sword-hilt (without the blade!), and pokes another general in the backside when he sheathes his sword back into its scabbard. With exaggerated, authoritative bravado, he mimics the general's orders to the men with his sword. One by one, as the three members of a Confederate cannon-firing crew fall to Union sniper fire, Johnnie finds himself the sole survivor of the cannoneers. Adding to his good fortune, his fly-away sword blade (minus handle) accidentally and fortuitously soars through the air when he gestures with it, spearing the Union sniper in the back.

Always unlucky with cannons, when Johnnie mans the cannon and jerks on the rope to fire it, the cannon muzzle points into the air and the cannonball is shot almost straight upwards - he worriedly looks to the sky, fearing it will come down on him. The projectile misses the enemy, but luckily comes down just behind a wooden dam on a river - the force unleashes a tremendous burst of water that floods and washes away the remaining Union forces on the front line. Another few cannon blasts force the immobilized Union trains to be abandoned and the footsoldiers to retreat. (The firing at the rear of the supply train repeats the accidental firing from the day earlier.) Johnnie seizes the Confederate flag from a falling, flag-bearing comrade before it hits the ground, and runs up on a rock to pose and wave it - however, he finds himself positioned on the arched back of a uniformed general. He is capsized, toppled backwards, and scolded for his presumptuous, glory-seeking mistake.

Heroes of the Day.

After outmaneuvering them at every turn, he is finally a hero of the day for his prowess - successful in recovering both his train and the heart of his girl. Johnnie comes marching home next to the general's horse, along with the triumphant cavalry. Yet he is still ignored on the main street of the divisional headquarters and wanders out of their exulted path. At the tracks, he stumbles and sits on the back of the tender of his own locomotive. He inspects it and is reunited with his beloved machine. In the cab, in a pantomime of discovery, he finds a slightly-dazed Union General Thatcher slowly coming to consciousness. He assists the general, but takes him at gunpoint as his prisoner to the Confederate commanders - along the way, he brushes dust off the leader's uniform. He swaggers and swings his arms as he delivers Thatcher for surrender. When the Union general ceremoniously gives up his sword, the pistol in Johnnie's hand suddenly and accidentally pops with excitement.

After General Thatcher is led away and as Johnnie inspects Thatcher's tendered sword, the Southern general notices Johnnie's tattered Confederate uniform and orders it stripped:

Southern General: Is that your uniform?
Johnnie: (he shakes his head no) I had to wear it to get through the lines.
Southern General: Take it off!

With a crushed look of total dismay, thinking that insult is being added to injury, Johnnie complies with utter consternation, noticing that Annabelle Lee and her wounded father are watching him closeby behind the picket fence. Suddenly, he realizes he is being rewarded by the general's aide with a new officer's uniform - and with Thatcher's sword! Although the uniform is much too big for him, he struggles to put it on. With admiration for him, Annabelle Lee rushes forward and he obliges by posing in a dignified profile. The General now orders Johnnie a commission with the rank of lieutenant:

Southern General: (To his assistant) Enlist the Lieutenant.
Assistant Officer: (To Johnnie) Occupation?
Johnnie: (proudly and stiffly, with Annabelle Lee at his side) Soldier.

As a secondary reward, he wins the adoration of the worshipping Annabelle Lee - now that he has a treasured soldier's uniform. As a parallel, mirroring counterpart to an earlier image in the film (when she scorned him), Johnnie leads her over to the General where he sits with her (positioned on his right) on the connecting cross-bar between two wheels on the side of his locomotive.

As an unending parade of soldiers pass by from the tented encampment, the new Lieutenant must distractedly salute each one of them with one hand and interrupt his spooning (hugging and kissing) of his girlfriend. Indomitable as always, he scrutinizes the problem, and then meets the challenge with a clever, pragmatic, and efficient solution - he ingenuously re-positions and adjusts himself (with Annabelle on his left) so that he may endlessly perform two simultaneous actions: romantically kissing Annabelle Lee and mechanistically and automatically saluting the passing soldiers with his right hand. The trio are rightly united together - the girl Annabelle Lee, the hero Johnnie, and his locomotive the General.

Also Worth Considering:
The General (1927)


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