For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!
I’ve never seen a Buster Keaton film before ‘The General‘ and it did not disappoint. It was pure entertainment from start to finish. This film transitions Keaton from vaudevillian to actor and director, using the still young medium of film to further his potential.
In the film Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a Southern railroad engineer in Marietta, Georgia. Johnny’s two loves are his engine, ‘The General’ and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), a beautiful southern belle. When shots are fired at Fort Sumpter, Annabelle’s Father (Charles Henry Smith) and brother (Frank Barnes), go to enlist in the Confederate Army. At Annabelle’s nudging, Johnny rushes off to enlist as well, but meets with unexpected opposition. Since he is a train engineer the enlisting office feels he would be more help at home and so they refuse him. He tries everything, but they won’t budge. The father and son see him leaving without an enlistment slip, offer to let him butt in line with them, but he refuses and they assume he is a coward. They tell Annabelle and she refuses to marry him until he is in uniform.
A band of Union Soldiers sneak into town and steal ‘The General’, accidentally taking Annabelle hostage in the meantime. Johnny chases after them, intent on getting his engine back- not even realizing Annabelle is with them. This is where it gets really good. It’s an adventure of hilarious and touching moments as he chases the engine, causing and receiving mishaps. He discovers Annabelle has been captured, and manages to escape with her. They steal ‘The General’ back and take off south to the lines to warn the Confederacy of the Union’s overheard plans. It’s like the northern trip in reverse- they are now the ones being chased – with more memorable events. They eventually save the day- (but clearly not the war) and ensure that many lives are not lost.
The sheer scope of this film is incredible. It was a period piece from the early 1860’s, and as Keaton was a stickler for details he borrowed three antique steam engines and moved the production to Oregon. Keaton performed all of his own stunts (wow)- running around and flinging himself through the air on top of a moving train, sitting on the cowcatcher, and hurling logs and cannon balls off the engine or fuel car. The final stunt tops them all. Keaton hired hundreds of extras, bought a train engine specifically for this shot, set up six or seven cameras, lit the bridge on fire, put a dummy in the engineer’s position, and let the train roll over the bridge and crash into the gorge. This really happened. The entire film is incredible- I literally sat there just enjoying it straight through.
‘The General’ is so good you forget it’s silent. It speaks for itself.
In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns: