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The General (1926) Review

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Buster Keaton movies never fail to impress me. Whether it’s masterfully staged stunts that wow me, his impeccable comedic timing, or innovative special effects, I’m always left thinking: “that man was a genius.” As an actor and director in most of his feature films, he had a tremendous amount of talent. The General optimises all of these things. It’s so rare that I will see a film and be able to not only say it’s simply one of my favourite films, but to flat out say it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Keaton plays Johnnie, a simple train engineer who tries to sign up with the Confederate Army to appease his fiancee Anabelle when the American Civil War breaks out. As he is so valuable in his current job operating his train The General, the Army won’t enlist him (though he doesn’t realise this, thinking that they don’t consider him man enough for the job). Through some frustrating, classic Keaton miscommunication, he gets shunned by Anabelle and her family (who assume he’s too cowardly to enlist), and goes back to working on his trusty locomotive alone.

A year later Annabelle is a passenger on The General but still wants nothing to do with our downtrodden hero. At a station stop, The General is stolen by Union spies, who inadvertently kidnap and hold Anabelle prisoner. Johnnie leaps into action and a great chase across the south takes place. The majority of the 75 minute film sees Johnnie take pursuit on foot, then by handcar, even on a boneshaker bicycle, before eventually commandeering another train: The Texas.

The stunts Keaton performs are arguably not his most death defying, but are nonetheless very dangerous, and utterly brilliant. Jumping across the train, riding the cow catcher and clearing the upcoming track of stray sleepers, amongst many other moments made my jaw drop. It’s an exciting, exhilirating thrill ride through some amazing scenery of the American south, with incredible cinematography. The huge amount of extras employed into big set piece scenes also add a massive sense of scale to the film.

Being a big fan of steam trains ever since I was very young, the locomotive aspect definitely makes me biased towards The General, but I genuinely think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I’m slowly considering the 20s to be my favourite decade in film, with The General heading the top of the pile. The grand finale of the movie, during a huge battle between two armies, sees one of the trains involved in the chase crash through a burning bridge over a river, plunging into a watery grave. A sequence easily done in miniature form, but Keaton decided to go for the real deal. It’s one of the most spectacular moments in a movie I’ve seen, and the wreckage actually remained in the river for another 20 years until WWII.

None of the visual splendor would mean too much though, if the story wasn’t engaging, and it was. It’s a simple tale of a man rescuing his woman, but with more at stake as Johnnie seeks to win back his fiancee. Which is framed amidst the American Civil War with Johnnie almost accidentally becoming a hero, wherein the movie truly becomes a grand adventure, a hilarious comedy and an exciting war film at the same time. Orson Welles said The General was to him: “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” While I wouldn’t be as bold to say that, there’s certainly a lot of stock to be held in that praise. It’s an undeniable classic, perhaps Keaton’s best movie as an actor/director and truly a masterpiece, to use that overused phrase.

 

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