The General (Dir. Keaton, Bruckman, 1926) at first begins as a comical film and then leads the viewer to see beyond the unpredictable turn of events. Being a silent film in black and white, and the only sound that was available was the music that built anticipation and gave the audience clues as to what would happen next. Johnnie Gray played by Buster Keaton was not only the engineer with great capabilities although some of his attempts in certain scenes may make us think other wise, but was indeed the hero of the film. Johnnie, shown as the underdog made his country see that he is just as worthy as any other man to be a member of the army.
The title of the film, The General, serves a dual purpose, on one hand, it is the name of Gray’s beloved engine, and on the other it is used to show Gray’s attempt to prove to his General that he is capable to enlist in the army. The film begins in the time of the Civil War and Johnnie wanted to enlist but when he went to the office to do so, he was denied because he was more valuable to the south as an engineer. Unfortunately he wasn’t aware of that reasoning so he returns to see his fiancée Annabelle, played by Marion Mack, but wanted nothing to do with him because he didn’t enlist and she didn’t take his word that he was turned away. After her father becomes wounded, Annabelle boards the General but when the enemy boards the train and steals it, she is captured and held as a hostage. Johnnie sees the train being taken away and runs after it.
Given the time this film was created, there were no such things as stunt doubles nor was the technology advanced enough to produce the heart wrenching scenes. For example, Johnnie ran for long periods of time to catch the train, even when things were not working in his favor. The enemy would throw wood on the tracks, to stop him from following them but he managed to jump off a train he obtained in town and move the wood in time before his train could hit him. What is even more amazing is the way Johnnie was able to cross the lines without being noticed for a while. Johnnie’s capabilities and drive surely increased when he learned the plans of the enemy’s sneak attack and having found his beloved Annabelle held captive. After sneaking back to the south with Annabelle, they managed to steal the enemy’s train, and hurried to get back to warn the confederate army of the attack by the bridge. With such danger but comedy intertwined in the plot, one could only wonder how Keaton was able to put on such a performance
All of the stunts that Keaton performed were dangerous and could have caused him injury but he managed to do them in such a way to keep you on the edge of your seat but also maintained a comical atmosphere. Johnnie’s love for his fiancée and his engine proved not only to the captain but also the audience, that Johnnie is the hero of the film and deserved to be apart of the Confederate Army.
The General. Dir. Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley. 1926. DVD. Kino International. 2008