Buster Keaton’s magnum opus, canonized by the National Film Registry, the AFI’s Top 100 Films of the Decade, and umpteenth other Best of… lists, The General is a remarkable milestone in filmmaking history, both for the art and science thereof.
Based on the true adventure of Andrew’s Raiders, The General is the story of train engineer Johnny Gray (Keaton), a son of the South who, at the onset of the Civil War, attempts to enlist. He is thwarted in his efforts by the recruiters who feel the South is better served with Johnnie as a civilian engineer. Johnny’s girlfriend Annabelle Lee believes he didn’t enlist because of cowardice and refuses to even see Johnny until he is in uniform.
CUT TO: A year later. Northern spies have infiltrated the South and stolen The General, Johnny’s train, to cut off supply lines to Confederate troops. Valiantly, Johnny chases after the Union soldiers, first on foot, then on pullman’s cart, and finally on another locomotive. Johnny discovers that Annabelle has been taken prisoner. In a daring rescue, he whisks her from under the noses of Yankee officers and absconds with The General, steaming back to Division Headquarters to alert Southern generals of the Union army’s approach.
If it sounds like an action/adventure rather than a comedy, that’s because it is. Not that The General isn’t funny. It’s hilarious. Keaton was a masterful clown, frankly unrivaled as a physical comic. Today’s equivalent would be the films of Jackie, although it’s a shallow comparison, and I mean that with all due respect to Jackie Chan, who is supreme. But Keaton was uberklown, the mastermind and originator of action sequences and techniques of stuntmanship that will continue to be imitated forever.
The ingenuity and scale of The General, with its nonstop onslaught of thrills and bits and gags, raised the bar for filmmaking. Keaton’s ouvre , in terms of incredibly choreographed action, dangerous stunts (performed by Keaton himself), and the sheer largeness of it all, was seldom matched. Even with the CGI and robo-cams and whatever other pyrotechnics and hullaballoo filmmakers employ today to thrill audiences, I don’t think you can find a more action-packed hour-and-a-half than The General.