The General, another of Buster Keaton’s movies to make it to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (in 1989), is truly Keaton’s movie epic. Keaton’s heroism and stunts in any of his movies are always amazing to watch, but often they are almost too outsized for the ordinary world in which they take place. For once, Keaton’s settings match his physicality.
The movie is based on a true Civil War incident: the Andrews Raid, in which some Union soldiers hijacked a Southern locomotive named The General and attempted to drive it up north, destroying railroad tracks and cutting telegraph lines along the way. The raid failed when two Southern train conductors caught the raiders.
In his movie of the story, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Georgia train engineer who, when the Civil War reaches his home town of Marietta, is as willing to enlist as anyone. Unfortunately, the recruiter refuses to enlist Johnnie because he is of more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier. Even more unfortunately, the recruiter doesn’t tell Johnnie why he was turned down, leading Johnnie’s girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family to believe that Johnnie is a coward. Annabelle tells Johnnie she never wants to speak to him again “until you’re wearing a uniform.” But when Johnnie’s train is hijacked by the Northerners, his heroism eventually gets the train back, defeats the Northern soldiers, and rescues Annabelle after the Northerners kidnap her. (Ironically, Annabelle gets her wish; when Johnnie rescues her, he is wearing a Northern soldier’s uniform, which he had to don in order to get behind enemy lines.)
Keaton pulled out all the stops on this movie. He was fascinated by trains, and now one of them would be his co-star. Keaton told his crew that he wanted the movie to be “so authentic it hurts,” and the movie does indeed look like a Civil War photo come to life. The movie’s plotting is wonderfully symmetrical, as Johnnie becomes a hero by pulling the same tricks on the Northern soldiers as they had previously pulled on him. And of course, Keaton spared no personal effort either, constantly jumping on, off, over, and on top of a moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike. After seeing Keaton cowering from a boxer in Battling Butler, it’s a pleasure to watch him as a dashing hero.
(Again, a word must be said about Keaton’s lead female, in this case Annabelle. Well-meaning film historians have stated that Annabelle is another “dutiful but dumb” Keaton heroine. True, she does do a couple of silly things in the movie, but so does Keaton. When Johnnie comes to rescue Annabelle from the Northern soldiers, he is constantly “ssh-ing” her so that the Northerners won’t hear them, only to end up making more noise than she does. One wonders if Stan Laurel didn’t crib this routine from The General, since he did it so often in Laurel & Hardy comedies.)
Unfortunately, Keaton literally paid a high price for his authenticity. The General ended up costing three-quarters of a million dollars, slightly more than Battling Butler made. And it is an unfortunate fact of movie history that The General was a bomb financially, beginning the box-office decline that eventually forced Keaton to move to M-G-M.
The movie also earned Keaton some of his most hostile reviews. The New York Herald-Tribune called it “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done.” And perhaps it is, if you’re looking for only a jokey comedy. Happily, the movie was re-discovered in the “Keaton renaissance” of the 1950’s and ’60s, and it has earned its rightful place as a critical darling ever since. (One can’t help but note that it is Keaton’s most adventurous movies, such as The General and Sherlock Jr., that were the most ill-received upon first release. If a movie buff needed any evidence that Keaton was ahead of his time, this would seem to be it.)
The General was one of the costliest movies of its time (including the single most expensive shot in silent-film history, when a bridge that Johnnie has sabotaged sinks a Northern train). But unlike many of today’s brain-dead blockbusters, every dollar of Keaton’s budget is up on the screen. The General is worthy movie-watching just for its sheer spectacle; the laughs are icing on the cake.