The General (1926) Director: Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Buster Keaton’s monumental film The General was inspired by a true historical event known as the “Great Locomotive Chase.” As a lifelong lover of trains, Buster Keaton was drawn to this story –he often included trains in his movies, but few will argue that The General stands alone in this respect. In preparation for the film, Keaton and co-director Clyde Bruckman consulted an 1889 memoir entitled The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger, one of the actual figures involved in the Civil War train chase. As the story goes, in 1862, volunteer spies from the union army launched a daring raid which commandeered a Confederate train and heavily destroyed Confederate infrastructure in the South, particularly communication wires. This was followed by an epic locomotive chase leading to the capture and hanging of several raiders. However, Buster Keaton’s film offers a slightly different –perhaps even revisionist– perspective on the story. Like The Birth of a Nation (1915) before it, The General lends a far more sympathetic view to the Confederacy than many will accept as gospel. While today The General is broadly regarded as a watershed moment in the history of cinema, amazingly it was not a strong box office success upon its initial release. Unfortunately, under the weight of a massive budget, The General actually lost Buster Keaton a great deal of money and it cost him his independence as a filmmaker. Buster Keaton’s golden years were coming to a close and they were quickly followed by a tragic downfall. Still, The General is nothing short of a technical marvel –there are explosions, crashes, battle sequences, dangerous stunts, and the single most expensive scene in silent film history.
The year is 1861. Johnnie Grey (Buster Keaton) is a train engineer who travels to Marietta, Georgia to visit his beloved, Annabelle Lee (named after Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, his only other love is his train “The General”). When news breaks out that Fort Sumter has been fired upon, Johnnie Grey rushes to the nearest office to enlist in the Confederate army, however he is rejected as a soldier because he will be of more use to the South as an engineer. Annabelle gives Johnnie the cold shoulder, questioning his courage and commitment to the cause. Later, Annabelle visits her injured father who is aboard the train “The General.” Suddenly, Union soldiers posing as neutral parties from Kentucky hijack The General with the intention of blocking further transportation to the South. They take Annabelle as their hostage, causing Johnnie chases after her, first on foo, then cart, then bicycle, following the runaway train as it speeds northward. Once realizing he is behind enemy lines, Johnnie travels incognito to rescue Annabelle. Here, we encounter an intense moment of Johnnie hiding beneath a table surrounded by Union soldiers plotting a surprise attack. One of the men burns a hole through the table cloth so we can see Johnnie’s eyeball beneath. In the dead of night during a rainstorm, Johnnie rescues Annabelle and they commandeer The General en route back to Chattanooga where Johnnie warns the Confederacy of an imminent Union attack. The Confederacy rallies together to chase the Union army back North and Johnnie is finally enlisted in the Confederate army as a lieutenant (or a “soldier” in his eyes) and Annabelle Lee, upon realizing the truth of his bravery, finally falls in love with him.
There is something self-consciously funny about The General. Perhaps the biggest joke of all is that the South is celebrated, the Confederacy is proven victorious in this daring train rescue mission, even though the audience is well aware that the Confederacy actually lost the war. The General is riddled with glaring ironies like this. Meticulously choreographed, perfectly symmetrical, this film foreshadows the future work of Wes Anderson. It is presented as a mirrored narrative in two acts. In Act I, Johnnie Grey chases down the rogue train commandeered by Union spies, dodging traps which have been laid ahead. In Act II, he recovers the General and returns it to the South, with his own string of parallel gags left on the return trip. The dramatic conclusion occurs during the Rock River Bridge train collapse sequence, a mesmerizing scene which ends the chase. It is the film’s crescendo and the most expensive sequence in silent film history (the crew only had one chance to capture it, and once complete, the train sat rusting in the river gorge for more than a decade before it was exhumed for scrap metal in World War II). The central tension of this train pursuit points us to the medium of locomotion itself. Unlike cars or airplanes, trains must stick to their already laid tracks. There is essentially nowhere to escape, hide, or veer off the path if needed, and this fragile exposure informs The General’s comic intensity. Our protagonist Johnnie Grey is bound to this single-track mechanization stamped upon the surrounding widerness –his train can only proceed forward or backward along the allotted tracks.
In a final note, Buster Keaton’s character Johnnie Grey is distinct from other protagonists in many of his films. He is not as silly, slapstick, or clumsy as Rollo Treadway for example. In The General, Johnnie Grey is calculated, mathematical, skilled, and, above all, he is courageous from the beginning. Whereas in other films, Buster Keaton’s characters are often frail disappointments who become accidental heroes, in The General, Johnnie is already a skilled tactician who does not shy away from danger and whose risky plans actually succeed. Unlike the self-satisfied military elite who dictate decisions far away from battle, in conditions of safety and security, perhaps the true “generals” are the working class heroes like Johnnie Grey. After all, the word “general” comes down to us from the French and Latin as merely a descriptive term referring to a wide swath of a particular genus, such as capitaine général. Perhaps, we might interpret “the general” as an exaltation of the third estate of the Estates-General. In the end, it is Johnnie Grey’s technical expertise and courage which win the day –a general engineer is proven victorious.
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