For reasons I could not explain to you, when we think of the silent film era, the first name that usually comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin. That statement is not meant to be ironic. Chaplin rightfully deserves his due. Yet, that era of cinema does not necessarily begin and end with the famous tramp. Those who are familiar with the first few decades of cinema have no doubt heard of Buster Keaton. Yet, why is Keaton not as widely recognizable as Chaplin? Is it because the latter had the more distinctive look, with the baggy pants, bowler, and cane? I would argue that the former had the more prolific career. Sure, like many of his silent film colleagues, Keaton had to make adjustments with the onset of talkies. Chaplin barely appeared in any movies after 1928. However, enough musing. Let us get on with number eighteen on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 100 movies of all time, Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).
There are two things that Johnnie Gray loves: The General and his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). The title, by the way, refers to Johnnie’s train, on which he is the engineer. The other is, indeed, a living, breathing woman who lives in Marietta, Georgia. This is one of the stops along his line, and as soon as the locomotive comes to a halt there, he is off to see her. Before they can get too comfortable, though, Annabelle’s brother brings news that Fort Sumter has been fired upon and this means war with the North. Oh yeah, this is set during the Civil War. Annabelle’s brother and father (Charles Smith) immediately go to enlist in the Confederate Army. With some subtle prodding from Annabelle, Johnnie resolves to do the same. Unfortunately for him, because he is a railroad engineer his skills are considered too valuable and he is prevented from joining. When Annabelle’s brother and father return from the recruitment office (which is a ridiculous concept, but then again, this is a comedy), they claim to have not seen Johnnie in line. Annabelle finds Johnnie sitting forlorn on his engine. When she asks what happened, he says the army would not take him. She does not believe him, and says she does not want to see him again until he is in uniform. A year passes, and the Union Army is pressing down from the North, nearing Marietta. At the Yankee headquarters, a spy of theirs, Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), devises a plan to disrupt the supplies going to the retreating Confederates. He proposes that, along with ten men, they sneak behind enemy lines and steal the trains transporting the goods. Of course, the engine that is targeted is Johnnie’s. Captain Anderson and his men make their move while the locomotive is stopped in Marietta, and Johnnie is not in the engineer’s compartment. He looks up in horror as it pulls away without him. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Annabelle has been taken hostage by the Union soldiers, the result of boarding the train in order to go to visit her wounded father. At first, Johnnie takes off running after the General, joined by other town’s peoples. After a little while, however, he looks back to find he is all alone in his pursuit. Now, this movie contains two locomotive chase sequences, and seemingly using real engines to boot. They are both hilarious. They are also quite long, and vaguely identical in terms of the hijinks you see along the way. This is code for I am not going to describe them in detail. Just know that they are remarkable. At the end of the first, Johnnie sneaks into the house being used by General Thatcher (Jim Farley) as headquarters for the Union Army. Hiding under a table, Johnnie sees Annabelle brought into the building. He also overhears the officers plans for their next attack on the Confederates. Thus, when it is safe to do so, he knocks out a guard, steals his uniform, frees Annabelle, and they run off into the night. Upon awakening the next morning, they find that they are near a train depot that has a number of locomotives to be used to keep pushing the Yankees further south. Johnnie’s plan is to steal his old engine back and return to Confederate lines to warn of an impending attack. He gets Annabelle on board and insert train chase number two. The conclusion of this last one is what my research indicates is the single most expensive shot in silent film history. It is when one of the trains chasing Johnnie and Annabelle attempts to cross a bridge to which he had set fire. It makes to the halfway point before the struts buckle and train plummets to the river below as it attempts to cross. It cost a lot of money because they apparently used a real train, which is pretty incredible. Anyway, Johnnie arrives in time to warn the Confederate Army, which is able to then go out and defeat the Yankees. For his service, Johnnie is not only allowed to join the army, but he is given a commission as a lieutenant. The end.
If that description of The General seems shorter than usual, it is because it is a short movie. My summary is also truncated by the fact that I did not go into detail with the two train chases. These are better seen than described, and in doing so you will see how great was Buster Keaton. If there is one bad thing I would say about the film, it is in glorifying the Confederacy and not addressing in any meaningful way its severe flaws. What I like about it is a more general aspect, but a complicated one due to my Catholic commentary. I would not necessarily call Johnnie a simpleton, yet there consistently seems to be a belief on his part in two things: that everything will work out, and in doing what is right. Doing good and right, the Bible tells us, does not have to be complicated. It starts with love. Love is what spurs us to upright action, just as it does for Johnnie to take off on foot after his train. Another person might stop to weigh options. Johnnie acts. All the enemy needs are seconds to suggest to you that something cannot be done, or there is a more prudent option. It is crazy to run after a train, just as it is crazy to voluntarily die on a Cross for the expiation of the world’s sins. Yet, the Bible also tells us that what is foolishness in the eyes of man is wisdom to God.
What would also be wise is for you to watch The General. I know I said its presentation of history is problematic. We should not celebrate the Confederacy for any reason, though that is not the purpose of the film. Instead, watch it for the genius of physical comedy that was Buster Keaton.
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