Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The General (1927)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

And now begins the bulk of the film, the sustained chase scenes - first with Johnnie chasing the spies, and then back again, with the spies chasing Johnnie. The film is consistently suspenseful and thrilling, with a series of complicated, dangerous stunts and sight gags all over the moving train in the sustained chase sequences (both in the pursuit and on the return journey.)

One of the spies uncouples the other passenger cars from behind, leaving only the locomotive, the tender, and two boxcars. After Captain Anderson gives the signal (by placing his hat on his head and gesturing with his walking stick), the train is boarded and hijacked. The disguised civilians tie and gag Annabelle Lee as the train pulls away from the station. Johnnie looks up from the soapy wash basin, astonished to see his beloved engine moving and disappearing down the tracks. (He is unaware that his girlfriend, Annabelle Lee, is trapped aboard, and has been subdued and taken as a prisoner.) Explosively and without a moment's hesitation, Johnnie valiantly takes off in pursuit, running swiftly on foot down the tracks toward the vanishing vehicle. He waves behind him to beckon other men to courageously follow after him.

In the locomotive cab after proceeding a short way down the tracks, Anderson orders the train to stop. Some of the Northerners leap off and cut the telegraph wires to prevent messages of alarm from the station from being transmitted ahead. After running after the train for a while, Johnnie stops and turns back, swinging around to the men he assumes are following him to rally them together. He has been so obsessed in his hot, futile chase that he hasn't notice that he is all alone and foolhardy. Annoyed, disconcerted and standing with his hands on his hips, he is nevertheless undaunted - Johnnie opens a nearby track-side train shed and hauls out a handcar. Up ahead, the train robbers break up a section of the track with a crowbar, making it impossible to pursue them. After pulling the handcar onto the track, Johnnie jumps on but only succeeds in moving in reverse. He jumps off, stops the car's motion, pushes it in a forward motion on the rails, jumps back on and begins wildly pumping up and down by bringing his weight down on the handle. The hijackers continue on their way, passing rapidly through the Kingston train station (where another train rests on a side track). The clumsy handcar is derailed by the broken track - Johnnie literally goes flying into the air and falls flat on his back onto the ground when the handcar jumps the tracks, tumbles down an embankment, and ends up in a river.

Not willing to give up even though the odds are against him, he spots another transportation machine to accelerate his pursuit - a wooden two-wheeled bicycle (an old-fashioned, high-wheel variety) leaning on a fence in front of a house. Johnnie leaps onto the clumsy vehicle. During another stop while a man cuts another telegraph wire, Captain Anderson is handed a package. The unwieldy bike dumps Johnnie off after a few hundred yards down the rough road. In the cab of the locomotive, Captain Anderson unwraps the package - it contains his disguise: a Confederate uniform.

When he races into the Kingston train station on foot, Johnnie tells one of the Confederate soldiers at the encampment who is guarding an army troop train sitting there on a siding: "Three men stole my General. I think they are deserters." After convincing the soldiers that he needs their assistance by waving and shouting for them to get aboard, a detachment of troops climbs up onto an open flat car behind the locomotive and its tender as he leaps into the cab of the locomotive - the Texas. He pulls the throttle when they are ready, chugging away down the tracks - here's another instance of Johnnie as ignorant victim. He progresses ahead thinking he has support without looking back. The troop car is not engaged or attached to the engine - the men yell and wave but aren't heard or seen. Captain Anderson pauses and checks his pocketwatch. After traveling for a while, Johnnie turns around and discovers that he has left the soldiers behind - he is alone and at a loss again.

He pulls the train to a stop next to another train shed on the side of the tracks. Johnnie notices a stumpy, snub-nosed howitzer cannon sitting on a flatcar trolley. The spies stop the General at a water tower and load up on a fresh supply of logs and water spewing out from a watertank spout. After getting an ingenious idea in his head (to load and fire the cannon at the train ahead), Johnnie attaches the cannon to the tender on the back of his train and continues the chase with it hitched and in tow. When Captain Anderson's men see Johnnie fast in pursuit with the Texas, they make a hasty departure and leave the waterspout hanging (without turning off the water). As Johnnie passes by the same pipe in his train, he sticks his head out of the cab and is drenched through the window. Quizzical and bewildered, he glances up at the sunny, cloudless sky, holds out his palm and can't quite figure out the mystery of the water flow until he looks back.

The spies mistakenly believe they are being followed by a Southern regiment. One of them suggests that they counterattack: "Why not stop and fight them?" But Captain Anderson fears: "I'm afraid they have us greatly outnumbered." To improve the numerical odds, Anderson decides to provide a passageway by leaping onto the tender (facing toward the rear of his train) and chopping a hole between the solid wall of the first baggage car and the locomotive tender. In a symmetrical pose and in another of the film's unforgettable moments, Johnnie climbs and stands up on the roof of the cab of the train, heroically leaning forward (facing toward the front of his train). As he shades his eyes with one hand, his slanted, angled form looks ahead toward his ultimate goal. The Northerners climb through the opening in the baggage car.

In one of the most-celebrated scenes in the film, Johnnie climbs off the tender and down to the flat car with the cannon. He loads and prepares to fire it to hit the train ahead. Without any knowledge of what he is doing, Johnnie measures out a pinch of gunpowder into the cannon, tamps it down, and then loads in a gigantic cannonball. He lights the fuse and returns to the locomotive's controls. Up ahead, the Northerners are led by a gun-waving General Anderson to climb from the tender onto the roof of the first baggage car. The cannon fires - it gives off a small puff of smoke and harmlessly discharges the cannonball (in a gentle, burping lob or arc) into the cab of his own locomotive. Johnnie looks down at the cannonball, with a cool attitude, and then rolls it off the train (where it explodes loudly in a great burst of smoke by the side of the tracks shortly afterwards). Not seeing the explosion, he checks the opening of the cannon, wondering where the blast came from.

He decides to try again, this time compensating for the longer distance with more powder. His new calculations go to the extreme - he loads and jams the entire keg of gunpowder down the muzzle, followed by another cannonball. As he scrambles back to the tender after lighting the fuse, his foot catches the flatcar's V-shaped hooking apparatus, and he unwittingly dis-attaches the cannon's flatcar from the tender. Luckily, when he finally frees his foot, the hooking handle falls down onto the railroad ties - but it jolts the flatcar with uneven bouncing as it moves along on its own momentum. The jiggling causes the stubby snout of the cannon barrel to move lower and lower so it is soon pointed horizontally - straight at him and his own train! When he again scrambles for cover, his right foot becomes caught a second time on a chain at the back of the tender, helplessly anchoring him as a target directly in front of the muzzle. After freeing himself, he tosses - ineffectually and petulantly, a piece of firewood at the cannon in protest. Up ahead, the spies have moved to the top of the second baggage car with their guns readied. Attempting to find the safest place on the locomotive, Johnnie scrambles over the tender and down onto the cowcatcher on the front of the locomotive. Both the North and South are in position for offensive battle.

Fortuitously and at the precise critical moment, the track curves and bends to the left as the cannon bursts, shooting its whooshing cannonball toward the rear of the fleeing General about a half-mile ahead, blasting a near-hit on the back car of the train. The frightened Yankees are convinced of the overwhelming, sure-fire power of their opponent and run back toward the front of their train. To block his pursuit, the hijackers disconnect the second boxcar behind the locomotive and let it drift toward him, hoping that it will hit him or provide an obstacle. They also chop a hole through the back wall of the first boxcar.

To avoid being helplessly blocked by the boxcar that slowly rolls and bumps into his train, Johnnie pushes the car ahead onto an alternate sidetrack, stops his own train, quickly switches the track's direction, and then continues his pursuit straight ahead. But before he can get ahead of the detached, sidetracked car, it connects back to the main track in front of his locomotive from the alternate track. After stoking his locomotive for a few moments, he is completely amazed to see the boxcar still ahead of the Texas [the shot is obviously studio-created].

The spies dump a large, wooden tie onto the tracks through the opening. Meanwhile, the locomotive controls on Johnnie's train become too hot to touch when they spurt boiling steam. While searching for a tool in the equipment box to fix the problem, he finds a black top hat and coat. Fortuitously, the detached boxcar derails itself when it strikes the wooden tie blocking the track, while Johnnie is busily repairing the locomotive's controls with a wrench. When he turns back to the problem of the disengaged train-car ahead of him, he blinks his eyes a few times and tilts his head in a marvelous double-take - the obstruction is magically gone!

More wide railroad ties are dropped onto the tracks by the train hijackers. Johnnie slows down the speed of the Texas, struggles to snatch up one of the heavy logs off the ground, and then falls back onto the cowcatcher of the locomotive as it scoops him up - with the log still cradled in his arms. Cleverly - as in a giant game of tiddley-winks, he gracefully hurls it at the second impediment, dislodging the second wooden tie from the train's path by bouncing the first one at it.

The train robbers try to foil Johnnie again by throwing another switch behind them. As Johnnie gathers wood from his tender, the spies carry the bound and gagged Annabelle out of the remaining boxcar. The reset switch sends Johnnie's Texas sidetracked in a different direction toward a dead-end. Realizing what has happened, Johnnie drops an armload of wood and brakes his engine at the dead end - just in time to avoid running out of track. The Northerners smash the remaining contents of the remaining baggage car as Johnnie reverses his train and returns to the junction to reset the switch. But after resetting the switch and attempting to start forward again, the Texas becomes stuck as his giant wheels spin without traction. A few handfuls of dirt thrown behind his back onto the slippery tracks provide a remedy - but the train, now propelled with friction, begins moving. As he kicks at a rock, the huge machine takes off without him. After a delay in discovering his abandonment, Johnnie chases after it.

The spies also set the contents of the last remaining boxcar on fire, uncouple the burning hulk and leave it in a covered wooden bridge spanning a wide river. Again, Johnnie has to free himself of a car's obstruction. Although asphyxiated and overcome with smoke, Johnnie is able to push the flaming boxcar through the burning wooden bridge with his train. Overcome by the smoke, he covers his face with a cloth and staggers to the back of the tender, where he sits down and becomes stuck in the mouth of the Texas' waterhole. After extricating his rear end, he fans himself with a piece of wood. All of Captain Anderson's men are confined to the small area atop the tender. Johnnie resets a switch and diverts the burning car out of the way onto a sidetrack.

A subtitle describes the progress of the war:

The Southern army facing Chattanooga is ordered to retreat.

From horseback, the commander of the Southern army facing Chattanooga orders a Confederate retreat. As Johnnie is absorbed while chopping firewood on the top of his tender as his train moves to the left, an entire retreating Southern army passes behind him in the opposite direction - toward the right. The spies on the General, who have ducked down in the tender during the Southern retreat, pop their heads up again with the advance of dark-uniformed Northern troops in pursuit:

General Parker's victorious Northern army advancing.

Again, Johnnie is oblivious to the movements of troops behind him. The spies stand up and cheer the advancing Union soldiers, and Captain Anderson changes out of his Confederate uniform disguise. As he continues chopping wood on the tender - his axe head breaks off from the handle as he chops. He tosses the worthless wooden axe handle into the fiery stoker. As he carries some other smaller pieces of wood-fuel to the locomotive, he suddenly notices the blue-coated troops from the Union alongside and behind him. It is his turn to crouch for cover. Johnnie realizes that he has unwittingly crossed into enemy territory, and he cowers in the cab of his locomotive, resting his cheek in the palm of his hand and wondering what to do next.

The stolen General races through a ground-level opening of a tremendous, five-level, trestle bridge made of timber lashed together. It circles around the mountain - off-camera - and perches on the top level of the trestle bridge, waiting for Johnnie and his army locomotive to appear five stories below. When Johnnie's train (The Texas) steams through, they pelt him with logs from above. And then they notice as the sole engineer looks up: "There is only one man on that engine." With his top hat and black coat that he found in the cab's toolbox, Johnnie jumps off and flees from his train, taking refuge in the heavily-forested valley to save his life. Anderson's men scramble off the tender to run after him - now Johnnie has reversed roles and he is the 'pursued'.

The next short sequence is one of the film's most marvelous pantomimes. As he runs under a forked tree branch, his top-hat becomes lifted from his head and lodged in the crook of the branch. He feels the weight of the hat lessen on his head, but can't locate it anywhere on the ground. When he retraces his steps and walks back to look for his hat under the branch, his head slightly grazes the hat and it neatly falls back onto his head. He is startled and amazed by the tree limb above his head, and tosses down both his hat and coat in terror as he runs off. He turns back for one final glance. As he hides in the forest, a giant shadow crosses over him - and the forces of Nature unleash a drenching rainstorm on him. Again, he rests his head in the palm of his right hand.

Another subtitle describes how he is spooked, miserable and alone:

In the enemy's country - hopelessly lost, helplessly cold and horribly hungry.

He leaps through the underbrush of the woods and slips, but rights himself with his chin on the brightly-lit window sill of a house - he hopefully peers inside imagining sustenance and shelter. To find a dry refuge from a rain storm and to steal some food, he stealthily and unmindfully enters through a window into the dining room of the house. The window slams shut behind him, threatening to disclose his presence - he whips around in terror, but is undetected. He stuffs his pockets with food, until Union military officers enter the adjoining lobby. This is the Union army's headquarters filled with Union generals!

He hides under the table in their council room where they are meeting. Fortunately, he is hidden by a low-overhanging tablecloth. To avoid detection, he suppresses a sneeze by holding his thumb over his nose. Johnnie overhears the Union leaders outlining their campaign strategy to launch a surprise attack the following morning:

At nine o'clock tomorrow morning our supply trains will meet and unite with General Parker's army at the Rock River bridge. Then the army, backed by our supply trains, will advance for a surprise attack on the rebels' left flank. Once our trains and troops cross that bridge, nothing on earth can stop us.

When one of the generals pounds his fist on the table, the sound reverberates in Johnnie's ear. Boots are thrust into his face and his arm is singed by the end of one of the generals' cigars as it burns a small hole in the tablecloth. Johnnie peeks out - and to his astonished eye, in one of the most creative shots in the film, he sees a dripping-wet Annabelle Lee brought into the room as a captive hostage of the Union, as Captain Anderson explains:

This girl was in the baggage car when we stole the train, so I thought it best to hold her.

A brilliant close-up shot of Johnnie's one blinking, incredulous eye stares out at Annabelle Lee - in a reverse perspective shot, she is economically framed in the burnt round hole in the fabric (in a creative iris shot). A general orders her to be locked in a bedroom for safe-keeping. When the meeting breaks up, the generals retire for the night.

And now the film begins to proceed in reverse as a symmetrical, balanced mirror-image of itself - he must kidnap Annabelle and his train and take them back to the Confederate South. To rescue his 'girlfriend' from the Northern camp, Johnnie crawls out from under the table, knocks out a Union sentry standing guard in the rain, steals his uniform, renders unconscious a second sentry with his shouldered gun, stealthily enters through the bedroom window, tightly cups his hand over Annabelle's mouth and warns her not to scream. Although he has cautioned her to keep still, as he tiptoes carefully around the bed, he noisily tips over a table. And as he climbs out the window, it slams down on his hands. When he tries to carry her back out the window, like any proper romantic hero would do, she proves to be too heavy, and he collapses under her weight - and the window slams shut again!

A bolt of lightning strikes above their heads and brings down a tree next to them. The rain is coming down when a black bear appears - she frantically runs off and they become separated from each other in the dark woods. As he sits on a log, she suddenly emerges in front of him, scaring him backwards. She is almost more formidable as an obstacle to their escape than any other potential danger. When Annabelle Lee steps into a bear-trap in the wet forest, Johnnie extricates her ankle, but gets his own hands (and then his foot) caught in the trap. As he struggles with the contraption, she moans and rubs her injured ankle, selfishly oblivious to his pain. Afterwards, he cautions: "We had better stay here until daybreak to see where we are." She is touched by his bravery and heroism, ignorant that he had really gone to all the trouble to rescue his beloved locomotive - not her:

It was so brave of you to risk your life, coming into the enemy's country, just to save me.

As she flirtatiously nestles against him, he is puzzled by her gratitude until it suddenly dawns on him to take advantage of her false assumption - he hugs her tightly. She rests her cheek against his shoulder and clings to him.

"After a nice, quiet refreshing night's rest," with Annabelle Lee sleeping in Johnnie's arms, he is awakened in the morning by a giant, falling pine cone which conks him on the head. He looks up, touches his bruised head, and then stirs Annabelle Lee. As he attempts to stand up, his bent leg underneath his body is numb and agonizingly painful - he pushes out his leg to straighten it. Scouting out the train station from the edge of the forest, he realizes that they have run - symmetrically - back to the railroad station. He sees his General being loaded with supplies by Northern soldiers for the impending attack. He hurriedly devises a daring plan:

We've got to get back to our lines somehow and warn them of this coming attack.

He realizes that he is still conveniently disguised in a Union soldier's uniform, but her appearance would give them away. He decides what to do without disclosing it to Annabelle. To stow her on board the General for its return trip, he steals a large gunnysack from a pile in the supply depot. As he hauls back the heavy sack, he walks backwards into a tree - with a startled look, he holds his arms high in the air, believing that he has been accosted by a sentry. After emptying the sack of an endless supply of shoes, he literally stuffs her into it, pushing her head down in order to cram her entire body into the tight-fitting sack. An additional distraction and annoyance occurs - he trips over the large pile of shoes, steps out of one of his own shoes, and must search for a replacement for his sock-covered foot.

Johnnie heaves the heavy burlap bag over his shoulder and joins a line of marching men loading his General train. He carries the bundle and stands next to the train, where the concealed Annabelle Lee surreptitiously pulls the coupling pin from between the first and second boxcar. After being given orders by an officer, he walks forward and flings the sack into the first boxcar, depositing her where other heavy crates, bags, boxes and barrels are thrown in on top of her. He covers his eyes and looks away, wincing at the horrible pain she must be suffering. Maneuvering himself into a second line of soldiers, Johnnie hauls a heavy log to the locomotive cab and leaps in. With the log, he knocks out Union General Thatcher (leaving him unconscious on the floor), pushes another officer off the left side, and kicks the wood-carrying soldier behind him off to the right. Johnnie now repossesses his own beloved train - and gets it moving to drive it back toward the Southern lines and Atlanta.

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