Perhaps Buster Keaton’s best-known film, The General had its grand première 31 December 1926 in Tokyo, and its U.S. première 15 January 1927 in Portland. The London première was 17 January, and there was a double-première in Chicago and Kansas City on 22 January. Finally, on 5 February, the film made it to NYC.
This tends to be one of those silents most people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the lost artform have seen. It’s also routinely voted as Buster’s best film, though I personally prefer Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), Spite Marriage (1929), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924).
This might be an unpopular opinion, but sometimes it feels like people name such-and-such one of the greatest only because they’ve heard it praised so many times, and aren’t thinking for themselves. I like the film and think it’s one of Buster’s strongest pieces from the silent era, but wouldn’t name it as his greatest or funniest ever. Then again, I’ve always been rather oppositional-defiant!
Johnnie Gray (Buster) is an engineer for Western & Atlantic Railroad in Marietta, Georgia. He has two loves in his life, his sweetheart Annabelle Lee and his train The General. When the Civil War erupts, he rushes to enlist, but is rejected because his civilian job is too important.
Johnnie isn’t deterred, and tries to sneak in again to enlist. However, he’s caught, and sent home in shame. He bumps into Annabelle’s father and brother, and when he refuses to get in line with them, they think he’s a draft-dodger. When Annabelle finds this out, she declares she won’t speak to him again till he’s in uniform.
This really says a lot about the culture of the time, and how many people thought of war as a grand, glorious, romantic adventure. While I believe the Civil War was more than morally justified, being in battle in any war isn’t a fun, awesome experience. It’s a terrifying matter of life and death. Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” always comes to mind.
Some time later, Annabelle receives word her father has been wounded, and hops on The General to see him. During a stop en route, Union spies steal the train and inadvertently kidnap Annabelle. Johnnie doesn’t waste a moment in pursuing them, though it’s kind of hard to give chase without a train.
When he reaches Chattanooga, he tells some soldiers what’s happened, and gets on The Texas on hot pursuit. Sadly, since the locomotive isn’t hooked up to the rest of the train, the soldiers are left behind. Johnnie doesn’t realize this until it’s too late.
The Union spies at first believe Johnnie is accompanied by Confederate soldiers, and try all sorts of things to get him off their tail. When Johnnie realizes he’s thick in enemy territory, and the spies in turn realize Johnnie is alone, Johnnie runs into the forest to hide.
Under cover of night, Johnnie sneaks into a house for food, and hides under a table when he sees Union soldiers approaching. First he overhears their plans for a sneak attack, and then he sees them bringing Annabelle in. Johnnie seizes the chance to rescue her. In the morning, Johnnie devises a plan to take back The General and warn the Confederate Army about the planned attack. I won’t spoil what happens after this.
Though I personally feel this film is a tad bit overrated, you can’t really go wrong with any of Buster’s silents. His MGM talkies are another matter, though that was due largely to being a victim of circumstance, not because he couldn’t make the transition to sound well. Buster had an awesome voice, and had so many great ideas, but the studio system wasn’t good for him. Louis B. Mayer also hated comedians. At least Buster was able to make a comeback later in life.