#18 The General

“There were two loves in his life. His engine, and–”

Buster Keaton’s comedy romance set during the American civil war, is at times funny, at times epic, and at times a little boring.

The story is based on a true story, though, as Keaton is playing a confederate, history tells us that his real life counterpart was not so likeable.

When Johnny Gray (Keaton), a locomotive engineer, realizes that is favourite train, along with his favourite girl, has been stolen by Yankees, he sets out on a one man rescue mission to reclaim the only two things that he cares about in the world.

While trying to recover his beloved train, Johnny stumbles upon a union plot to, through destroying confederate telegraphs and support lines, destroy the confederate uprising. Johnny, who does not care about this war nearly as much as he cares about Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), inadvertently becomes an invaluable contributor in the war for the south.

While trying to save Annabelle, Johnny ends up striking a major blow against the North and earning himself a prestigious spot in the confederate army. More importantly to Johnny though, he is also able to win the heart of Annabelle.

Keaton was a perfectionist, and that showed in this film. When you consider the time that this film was made in, some of these shots would seem nearly impossible to achieve. One scene, in which a bridge collapses under the weight of a speeding train, was the most expensive scene to ever be shot for any silent film.

But a huge budget wasn’t all that Keaton had to work with. To get a cannon ball to shoot the exact right distance in one scene Keaton had to count out gunpowder grains with a set of tweezers.

That being said, it is no longer 1927. These shots are not nearly as impressive to a modern audience as they would have been to pre World War II audience. So, like most films from an older time, the value of this film rests on certain timeless qualities. This film, unfortunately, does not seem to have these qualities.

The film, which deals with themes such as love, and social status, is basically one long chase scene. There are a few things that break this up, a union meeting and a final battle between the North and South for instance, but most of this film is either Johnny chasing confederates or the confederates chasing Johnny.

One major area in which this film fails is its inability to draw the viewer in. The characters are difficult to truly invest yourself in. The love interest, whose love is conditional on Johnny enlisting in the military, is hard to sympathize with. More importantly, Johnny himself is difficult to sympathize with.
As a physical comic Keaton is good, but he is no Chaplain. His movements are not as hypnotic as Chaplain’s, and his sense of timing, at least in this film, is not quite as tight. This is very important due to the fact that certain scenes could have been drastically improved had the slapstick physical comedy been more engaging.

The film wasn’t all bad though. Saying Keaton is no Chaplain isn’t the worst insult in the world. His performance is still strong, it just left some room for improvement.

The film did generate quite a few genuine laughs, and, in the end, isn’t that all you really need from a comedy? Moreover, this film’s contibution to the film industry is invaluable. It raised the bar for what could be shown on the screen much the same way Gone With the Wind did thirteen years later. It is likely that this film will not change anyone’s life in any profound way in today’s age. However, this film still has the ability to be enjoyed by viewers, and, eighty-five years later, that is quite impressive.

If you want to check out this film, it is available for free (100% Legal) download by clicking here