Depending on where you read about Buster Keaton’s 1926 film The General or what review you are reading the film is considered to be Keaton’s best. I think after reading reviews of this kind I had high expectations for The General and fell flat. But despite this set back I found the film to be fun and amusing.
Keaton is Johnnie Gray engineer of a train called The General. He has two loves in his life one being his train and the other his sweetheart Annabelle Lee. The day he comes home and visits Annabelle her father and brother arrive with the news that Fort Sumter has been attacked and that the war has officially begun. Johnnie plans to enlist and is the first one on line at the recruitment office. Unfortunately the army will not take him because he is an engineer and say he will be more useful that way. Johnnie is heartbroken and to make matters worse Annabelle’s brother tells her that he did not even see Johnnie on line to join. She says that Johnnie is a disgrace and that she does not want to speak to him until he is in uniform.
Not long later Annabelle needs to visit her father who has been injured. She travels on The General. On the train also happens to be Union officers who plan to steal the train and travel north. Johnnie makes a stop at a station when the Union officers steal the train. Annabelle is on the train when it is stolen. Johnnie steals another train and gives chase to his beloved train. The chase becomes very drawn out and a battle as the Union officers try to throw whatever they can in front of Johnnie’s train to slow him down.
After a long chase the Union officers finally stop Johnnie’s train. The night is cold and rainy as Johnnie is lost in the woods. He comes across a house where he sneaks in to steal some food and to warm up. Men walk into the dinning and Johnnie sees they are the soldiers who stole The General. He quickly hides under the table and listens to their plans on how they are going to attack the southern army. Two soldiers bring in Annabelle and lock her in a room for the night. When the soldiers retire for the night Johnnie rescues Annabelle.
The next day they come to the train depot where The General is stationed and being loaded. Under disguise as a bag of supplies Annabelle- being held over Johnnie’s shoulder- takes the pin out that holds the train cars together. Johnnie gets to the engine and takes off in a flash with his train. Another long chase begins. At bridge Johnnie burns some longs over the tracks to weaken it. He and Annabelle get the southern camp and warn the soldiers about the incoming Union army. The Union general tells his men to cross the bridge the fire is not that bad but the bridge collapses along with the train. A battle ensues and in the end the southerners win.
Before Johnnie had left the station with The General he had really knocked out a Yankee soldier. The soldier woke up after the battle and Johnnie took him to southern general. For his part in helping to win and in capturing the enemy the southern general makes Johnnie a lieutenant.
While I found the chase scenes to be a bit drawn out there were some very good moments in the film. My favorite was when Johnnie and Annabelle were I the woods after they had run away from the Union soldiers. Johnnie lost Annabelle for a few moments and was calling to her as he was sitting on a log. She pops up out of nowhere and scares him and he falls off the log. I do not know why but I was dying it was so funny. In the second chase Johnnie stops the train to fill it with water. The water is not coming out so he pumps it and instead of going through the pipe it gushes all over Annabelle drenching her.
Buster Keaton was such a good actor. I liked seeing his climbing all over the train and becoming a hero in the end. My favorite scene of the whole film was at the beginning as he is walking to Annabelle’s house: two little boys are following him. Annabelle sees him and follows behind the boys without telling Johnnie. At the house he takes his time knocking on the door and when he does Annabelle lets it be known that she was behind him. The reason I love this scene is because of Keaton’s face when he sees Annabelle he looks surprised as well as nervous. His face and reaction was so sweet and genuine I loved it. I was cracking up with his scenes where he has to fire a cannon. He did it once in the first chase then at the battle against the northerners. The first time the cannon was aimed at his train because it fell but luckily the trains rounded a turn and the cannon hit the other train. The second time he shot the cannon straight up in the air but it hit the other northern train across the bridge.
Although The General is not one of Buster Keaton’s best films and the train chases are a bit drawn out I did enjoy sitting through the film. Keaton was an excellent filmmaker and story teller.