Silent Essentials: The General

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This week my month-long look at essential silent films continues. This time around I’m spotlighting a film by the legendary Buster Keaton. My pick is his 1926 comedy masterpiece The General. It contains some truly spectacular stunts, includes the most expensive shot of the silent movie era. It was a critical and commercial failure on its initial release. But over the years it has become rightfully regarded as a classic.

The General is set against the backdrop of the Civil War. Keaton’s character (Johnnie Gray) wants to enlist in the army. But the Confederacy thinks he’s more valuable as a train engineer. This not only frustrates Johnnie, but it puts a wedge between him and his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack). She thinks he’s a coward. Things get even worse for Johnnie. The General, his beloved engine, is stolen by Union spies and heads for Union lines. Making things worse is the fact that Annabelle is on board. Johnnie then sets out two save his two loves.

It’s worth noting that The General was based on true events. Here’s a little background:

Based on a true incident during the Civil War. In April 1862 Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army’s supply chain. At the town of Big Shanty, GA, (now known as Kennesaw, Georgia) the raiders stole a locomotive known as “The General.” They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of “The General,” pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called “The Yonah,” which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called “The Texas,” which pursued “The General” for 51 miles–in reverse. During the chase Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders. Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold all eight men). The rest of the raiders were traded in a prisoner exchange. In 1863 the survivors of the mission were awarded the first Medals of Honor (Andrews and the raiders who had been hanged later received the medal posthumously). Although this film is a comedy, the incident was later filmed by Walt Disney as a drama, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), with Fess Parker–a Southerner, born in Texas–as Andrews.–IMDB

One reason this is a silent essential is because of the groundbreaking stunts. Keaton, like his silent era counterpart Harold Lloyd, was known for doing daring stunts. There’s a scene where Keaton rides on the front of the train (pictured at the top of this post). There’s a *spoiler alert!* legendary train crash at the end. According to Internet Movie Database, a crash dummy was used as the engineer in that scene. But it looked so realistic that the townspeople who had come to watch screamed in terror. Here’s another fun tidbit about the film from Internet Movie Database:

When the Texas goes over the burning bridge and plummets into the river, the looks of shock on the faces of the Union officers were real, because the actors who played them were not told what was going to happen to that train.–IMDB

We take crashes and explosions for granted now because we live in the era of CGI and Industrial Light and Magic. But before you could pull up special effects on a computer, you had to do it yourself and hope you didn’t get hurt. Keaton was a mad genius who put everything into his films and often put his life on the line to achieve a visual gag. The General is a great example. It’s no surprise that it was Keaton’s favorite film of his own.

If you’re looking for an introduction to the genius of Buster Keaton, The General is a great place to start. It has great comic bits in addition to the jaw-dropping silent era action. It’s one of my favorite silent films. I could watch it again and again. I hope you’ll take time to give it a look or introduce a friend to it.

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