The General (1926) Poster

(1926)

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9/10
The Genius of Buster Keaton
MadReviewer17 April 2001
Probably Buster Keaton's best film, and oddly enough, it's not even a straightforward comedy – it's actually an action film, with clever doses of romance and comedy tossed in for good measure. `The General', which is set during the Civil War, is about a train engineer named Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton, of course) who tries to enlist in the Confederate Army . . . and is turned down because the army feels he'd be much more valuable for the war effort as an engineer instead of a soldier. However, through a series of misunderstandings, both Johnny's family and his girl think he's a coward, and they refuse to speak to him until he becomes a soldier. Months pass, and Johnny, sad and alone, is piloting his train – the General – when it is stolen from him by the North. Johnny's efforts to recover the General – and to win back his girl's love – become an unbelievably funny and action-packed series of events, as Johnny tries to go from being a sad-sack buffoon to being a hero.

If you haven't watched many silent films, they demand a greater amount of attention than `normal' film – there are no audio cues; and volumes can be spoken with a simple facial expression. Buster Keaton is amazingly expressive, as he's fully capable of going from wildly happy to downtrodden and sad in the blink of an eye. While funny, Keaton is much more than just a clownish figure – he manages to evoke a lot of sympathy as well, and he genuinely becomes what can only be described as an action hero as well. His timing, whether for a joke or for a tender moment, is absolutely impeccable.

What's also great about `The General' is the sheer amount of stunts and physical humor – a movie like this couldn't be made today. No amount of insurance would cover it. Keaton does all his own stunts, and manages to perform a number of feats that are simultaneously hilarious and dangerous – he chases down `The General' with a bike, he sits on a moving cattlecatcher, knocking away railroad ties with a tie of his own. All these stunts are fantastic, but it's scary to think that any one of these probably could've killed Keaton if something even went slightly wrong.

`The General' is a lot more than slapstick. Personally, I think it's one of the first films to push the envelope of movies – it goes for action, romance, and humor, and it pulls all of those elements together into a terrific movie. If you've never seen Buster Keaton – or, for that matter, a silent film – go find this one and watch it. It's a classic. A+
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10/10
Understated Perfection
imogensara_smith21 June 2006
Buster Keaton once said that if he hadn't been a comedian, he might have been a civil engineer. He was not only a mechanical whiz but a spatial genius who devised stunts and gags with the grace of pure physics. It's no wonder he adored trains, the most elegant of machines, and brought them into his movies whenever he could. When one of Keaton's former gag-writers loaned him a book recounting the theft of a locomotive from Georgia by Union raiders during the Civil War, he was immediately fired with enthusiasm to bring this "page of history" to life. His first certainty was that the production had to be "so authentic it hurts." He even insisted on using historically accurate narrow-gauge railroad tracks, which he found, along with appropriate landscapes, near the sleepy town of Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Most importantly, the area had stretches of parallel tracks, which allowed scenes of Buster on his train—agilely scrambling over the cars, balancing on the roof to scan the horizon, chopping wood for the engine while armies pass unnoticed behind him—to be filmed from another train running alongside. Buster, his train, and the camera are all in motion; the wind whips through Buster's hair while smoky pine-covered hills rise and fall around him. These scenes are not only the highlight of the movie but a peak in the history of *moving* pictures, and they put to shame all later back-projection and process shots, models and computer-generated effects. The quality of Keaton's film-making is simply—pun intended—unparalleled. Every shot in The General is clean, fresh and efficiently composed; the action is captured honestly and legibly at all times. The film never tries to be beautiful; its beauty is functional, just like the grave, masculine beauty of the locomotives and railroad bridges and Civil War uniforms.

The General's narrative structure is as strong and uncluttered as its look. Like a train, it stays on track, never meandering for the sake of a laugh or a stunt. All of the gags rise organically from the coherent and straightforward storyline. Adapting the historical incident, Keaton made himself the engineer of the stolen train (Johnnie Gray), rather than one of the raiders. As he saw immediately, The General is one long chase, or rather two chases, structured like the flight of a boomerang. First Johnnie on a borrowed train, the Texas, chases his own stolen train, the General. He manages to steal it back and races it towards his own lines, pursued by the raiders in the Texas, who try to prevent him from carrying their battle plans to his own high command.

The General is not Keaton's funniest film, but here he was going for quality over quantity in laughs. A number of the gags, like the box-car that keeps appearing and disappearing as it switches tracks, have a long build-up for a relatively modest payoff. But the laughter is mingled with a gasp of awe, and the best moments never get stale on repeated viewings. The cannon attached to the back of Buster's train goes off just as the train starts around a curve, so the ball flies straight and hits the raiders' train coming out of the curve. Riding on the cowcatcher, Buster hurls one railroad tie at another lying across the tracks, striking it precisely so that it flips out of the way. A forlorn Buster sits on the crossbar of his train's wheels, so lost in thought he doesn't notice when the train starts to move, carrying him up and down in gentle arcs: stillness in motion.

I agree with author Jim Kline who describes The General as Keaton's most personal film, the one that best captures his unique vision, spirit and personality. In many of his films, Buster starts off as an inept or effete character and develops into a hero. But his competent, ingenious and athletic character in The General, who is also modest, tireless, and underestimated, comes much closer to his real nature. There is a shot in The General of Buster's eye isolated on screen, framed by a hole in a white table-cloth, that has always reminded me of Dziga Vertov's kinoglaz, the "camera-eye." Keaton melds with his camera; there's no distinction between his qualities as a performer and the qualities of his movies. They have the same silence, the same strictness, the same strange blend of gravity and humor.

The General might be the most serious comedy every made, but it's not a tragicomedy. That, as in Chaplin's blending of pathos and low humor, was something people took to immediately. But no one knew what to make of The General. Original reviews accused the film of being dull, pretentious, unoriginal, and unfunny. Even today, people who have heard it acclaimed as one of the greatest movies of all time are sometimes puzzled or disappointed by it on first viewing. The General is challenging because it doesn't flaunt its virtues; like Keaton's concise and economical performance, it holds a great deal in reserve. Take the movie's most famous shot, of a train crashing through a burning bridge, for which Keaton built a real bridge and destroyed a real train. The shot lasts a few seconds in the finished film: he doesn't dwell on it or hype it. Who else in Hollywood would sink money in a spectacular effect and then downplay it? Keaton never forces a response from the audience, never manipulates, never overplays. He doesn't show off his acrobatic skills or his enormous repertoire of comic talents, nor does he play for sympathy. Anything so subtle will always leave some people cold. But for those who can see the expressiveness of Buster's so-called "stone face," who get his peculiar dry humor, who appreciate the rigorous purity and taste he displayed, these virtues are all the more stunning because they are understated. Buster Keaton always has more than he's showing; you can see it in his eyes.
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10/10
The Greatest War Comedy ?
theowinthrop27 May 2006
It is "generally" (or should I pun and say "General Lee"?) said that the best comedy of the silent film career of Buster Keaton's career was his Civil War epic THE GENERAL. Apparently planned with more care than any of his other film projects, it involved not only researching a period of history some sixty years in the past, but getting the correct rolling stock, costumes, weapons, and props to make it look correct. And it worked so well that Keaton never really could (despite some great moments in STEAMBOAT BILL JR.) out-do it. In fact, the closest thing to his best sound film (or film that he influenced that was a sound film) was his work with Red Skelton in the comedy A SOUTHERN YANKEE, where he returned to a Civil War theme.

THE GENERAL (as I mentioned in discussing the Disney film THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE) is based on the "Andrews Raiders" stealing of the Confederate locomotive "The General", and an attached train, which was used to damage tracks and bridges. The raid (in February 1862) was from northern Georgia into Tennesee. It only lasted 20 miles, as the coal for the train was used up and not replaced. Andrews and several raiders were hanged after a trial. Others went to southern prisoner of war camps. The effect of the incident far outstripped it's military success. The damage (after all) could be repaired. But like Jimmy Doolittle's Raid over Tokyo in April 1942, it had a tremendous effect hurting Confederate morale. The area attacked was hundreds of miles from the battlefronts of Virginia or Kentucky/Northern Tennessee that were in the current events of the War at the time, and so was considered safe by the Confederate government and public. Instead it had been shown quite easy for Northern raiders to hit and run for awhile.

Despite it being a brief incident of the war, the locomotive chase would remain famous after more important events were forgotten. The actual locomotive is still in existence in a museum in the south. When Lesney did it famous series of "Models of Yesteryear" the first locomotive that was included in that series of collectible toys was "The General".

The story, however, was ultimately a downer. But Keaton took the basic tale and made it a comedy of the period. First he changes the viewer's perspective - it is not concentrating on Andrews and his men, but on the Confederates. Secondly, he builds up the story of Johnny Gray, a railroad engineer who tries to enlist but is rejected (the twist of logic failure in the script is that the Confederate draft board head does not bother to explain to Johnny that he is more useful as an engineer to the cause than as a soldier). Because Keaton's family and girl friend (Marion Mack) see he is not enlisted, they believe he turned coward.

Johnny eventually is the only person who tries to retake "the General" from the raiders, and the film has actually two chases in it - first Andrews and his men stealing the train, and then Keaton sneaking into Northern lines with Mack and retaking it.

Along the way are many comic classic moments, such as Keaton carefully standing on the cowcatcher and carefully using physics to knock off broken wooden ties that might derail the train, or when (at a moment of dejection) Keaton sits on the connecting rod that links the trains wheels and finds himself pulled into the locomotive barn while in a sitting positions. The situation of fighting the Yankees during the second chase, and finding Marion Mack there "helping" him, are wonderful - especially when she judges which lumps of coal are pretty enough to be used to keep the engine fired (she throws away the ugly little ones). Keaton's reaction to her stupidity is a wonderful moment.

The classic conclusion of the comedy is the battle of the two sides at the river, and the burning of the railroad bridge (with it's destruction of a second locomotive). It has been called the most expensive sight gag in history. By the way, the Northern General who ordered the locomotive across the bridge is of some special interest. He was Mike "Turkey Strut" Donlin, a frequent member (and starring player) of the old New York Giants under John McGraw and Christy Matthewson in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Donlin (who got his funny nickname from the way he ran the bases) left baseball to become a film actor (he had worked a bit in vaudeville). Keaton was a sports fan (and showed this in his film COLLEGE, where he shows his abilities in several sports) and hired Donlin. This was the latter's most famous performance - look at his reaction to the collapse.

It must be regarded as Keaton's finest film, and certainly the best war comedy to come out in the silent period. It may also be the best war comedy to come out of any period of motion pictures.
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Loco and Motive
tedg14 May 2008
No one will top Keaton for physical risk, and risk is what deep film experiences are all about. This might be classed as a comedy, but for me it touches deeply enough. Its about a man who needs to prove himself by taking risks and being true. And its by a man who takes even greater risks and is more true. True to the spirit of the social compact, here displayed as the chummy south.

He's always done stunts that amaze. Many of his other films have things in them that if the timing were only a little off, he'd be seriously injured, or die. But this takes the cake. Its almost as if he started with the idea that he'd have three locos to play with and had a year to think up stunts.

And the stunts are so physical! And so dangerous. And so, so very effective.

His trademark is the deadpan face placed as a sort of innocent cluelessness. Its particularly funny when you see the physical movements and you know that 1) they take incredible preparation and timing to pull off and 2) the fellow you see that looks so puzzled by the reality you see is the guy that devised and directed those stunts.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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Richly inventive comedy with a logically impeccable plot that makes the hyperbolic slapstick seem plausible and inevitable; this is a work of art and a work of genius
J. Spurlin29 June 2000
Buster Keaton's "The General," about a man and his engine, puts you in a world where the most comically inventive situation that could happen will happen. From major comic situations to throwaway gags, "The General" always knows what to do.

The story begins in leisurely fashion. A title card tells us that Johnnie Gray (Keaton) has two loves in his life: his engine and his girl—respectively, The General and Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Johnnie goes to visit Annabelle, followed by two engineer-worshipping boys and, unknown to him, Annabelle Lee herself. He and his entourage arrive at the door; Johnnie polishes his shoes on the back of his pants legs, slicks back his hair, and gently taps the door with the door knocker. Then he turns to notice Annabelle. Keaton's understated reaction is a testament to his uniqueness. Any other comedian would have done an explosive double-take.

Now Johnnie and Annabelle are together in her parlor, but the boys are there, too. Johnnie stands up, puts on his hat and opens the door as if to leave. The hero-worshippers are ready to follow, but Johnnie lets them out first, then closes the door on them. This is a gentle ruse in the world of silent comedy. At Keystone both boys would have gotten kicked in the pants.

Now the two are alone. Annabelle's father sees them from another room and is about to break things up when her brother enters and announces that Fort Sumter has been fired upon: the War Between the States has begun. Annabelle kisses her father and brother as they go to enlist, then turns expectantly to Johnnie, who cocks his head like a confused puppy. She asks, "Aren't you going to enlist?" Realization hits him, and he leaps off the seat. Before he can run out the door, Annabelle kisses him. This so overwhelms Johnnie that he flings out his arm in a farewell gesture and falls off the porch.

Johnnie races to the general store, which is now a makeshift recruitment office. Taking a shortcut he manages to be the first in line. The door to the office is opened and Johnnie comes marching in—only he and the rest of the line go in two different directions, and he has to jump over several tables to get in front again. He gives the enlistment officer his name and occupation, but the man rejects him. Johnnie is more valuable to the South as an engineer. Later, Annabelle believes that Johnnie didn't even try to enlist. She refuses to speak to him again until he's in uniform. What follows is a classic moment: Johnnie sits on the connecting rod of his engine. He's so miserable that he doesn't notice when he starts moving up and down, until just before the train enters a tunnel.

Time passes and we learn that a group of Unionists are secretly passengers on The General. When (nearly) everyone is off the train having dinner, the Unionists climb back aboard and take the engine. Annabelle, a passenger herself, was still on board. She is now their prisoner.

But Johnnie only knows his beloved General has been stolen, possibly by deserters. He pursues the engine by taking another, The Texas. Through a mishap he becomes the sole person aboard The Texas, but the Unionists think they're outnumbered and continue to run. What follows is the true joy of the movie: two long chases (separated by an important plot twist). Now the movie changes its quiet pace for almost nonstop action.

I love it when the Unionists break off the rail car to hinder The Texas. At one point, the car, which Johnnie thought he had switched to another track, reappears in front of the baffled engineer, only to disappear later just as mysteriously. We see the logical circumstances that lead to the car's seeming magic act, and the equally logical situations that keep Keaton occupied, preventing him from seeing what we see.

Comic logic is important to "The General." In no other movie do hyperbolic slapstick gags seem so plausible and inevitable. In a throwaway gag, Johnnie empties a burlap sack full of shoes because he urgently needs the sack. Of course—of course!—he loses his own shoe in the pile and must stop to hunt for it.

We move to the second chase, where Johnnie has The General and the Unionists are the ones pursuing him. Now Johnnie must contend with Annabelle Lee.

Marion Mack leaves no mark of her personality on the screen. She deserves credit mainly for being willing and able to take it. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were never thrown around, trod upon or knocked about the way Marion Mack was. She has hilarious moments. The excitement of the chase does not prevent her from taking out a broom to sweep the dusty floor of the engine. An exasperated Johnnie tells her to keep throwing wood into the fire. She takes a small stick and daintily puts it in. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a sliver, and she puts that in, too. Then, in a moment that has an audience roaring and clapping, Johnnie grabs her and half-throttles her before kissing her instead.

The final section, most of it a battle scene, includes the shot where The Texas begins to cross a burning bridge, only to crash into the river. Owing to Keaton's disdain of fakery (one of several reasons his works seem modern) he did not use a model but a real train on a real burning bridge. The crash cost $42,000—reportedly making it the single most expensive shot ever in a silent film.

A worthy closing gag was too taxing even for Keaton's ingenuity. Johnnie's dilemma is to kiss his girl while saluting the passing soldiers. His remedy is only mildly funny. Is anyone complaining? "The General" is a work of art and a work of genius.
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7/10
"If you lose this war, don't blame me".
classicsoncall1 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I would have eventually gotten around to watching this film, but my curiosity was piqued when I saw that it had miraculously jumped to Number #17 on the 2007 version of AFI's Top 100 Movies of all time list. It didn't make the cut at all for the original compilation in 1997, so even before seeing the picture, I had to wonder what might have affected movie critics in the intervening decade to reach this conclusion. I usually line up with the majority in most cases, but I have to admit, I don't quite get it with this picture. I found it entertaining enough on occasion, but I never got the sense that it was one of the great comedy classics of all time the way it's heralded on the DVD sleeve. I don't think the Civil War lends itself much to comedy, so right there my expectations were greatly reduced. Keaton's somber demeanor and generally stone faced disposition don't help. On the flip side, I wouldn't have expected slapstick to move the story along either, so at least I wasn't disappointed in that regard.

What I DID enjoy were some rather offbeat moments that showed genuine creativity. When Johnnie Gray (Keaton) dejectedly considered his rejection by the Confederate Army, and pondered his situation while sitting on the train's connecting rod, the resulting visual was pure genius. The up and down motion lent a truly surreal juxtaposition to Johnnie's thoughtful reverie, and was one of the highlights of the picture for me.

The other significant scene that gave me pause was when The Texas collapsed on the burning Rock River Bridge. For starters, I found it unbelievable that a wooden bridge could possibly be constructed strong enough to support a locomotive. Then I came to learn that the scene was the most expensive ever made for a silent film, and I have to give Keaton credit for going out on that kind of a limb - unbelievable.

Oh yes, and I can't forget the sequence where Keaton's marksmanship is dead on when he makes contact with the rail tie blocking the train tracks, flipping it out of the way with a well timed throw of his own. Could that have possibly been done in one take? In a pre-CGI world, it's difficult to imagine how stunts like these could have been performed, particularly by an actor who had no recourse but to do his own. For that, Keaton deserves accolades.

In between all this clever film making however, I just wasn't inspired. The central plot element doesn't hold up for me - if Johnnie Gray was rejected as a volunteer, why wasn't he simply told the reason why. One could argue that then, you wouldn't have a picture, but for me it left the story on a shaky footing. If Johnnie was more valuable as a train engineer than a soldier, the picture might have taken a different approach, but the rest of the elements could have remained the same and he still would have come out a hero. Maybe I'm second guessing a master, but that's what I come away with.

Conclusion - if this movie didn't make AFI's Top 100 Film List in 1997, I don't understand what might have occurred in the intervening years to suddenly have film critics vault it into the Top 20. At the same time, Chaplin's "City Lights", in my estimation a superior silent film, fell OFF the list, while "The Gold Rush" moved up a few notches. I may not be a professional, but I know what I like, and this one just didn't do it for me.
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10/10
An instant favorite
vovazhd27 January 2008
I haven't had so much fun watching a movie for a long time. The General is a silent comedy (mostly slapstick) about Johnny Gray, a train engineer with two loves: his engine and Annabelle Lee. Annabelle soon dumps him because of his failure to enlist into the Civil War (they would not take him because he was too valuable as an engineer). Things are then sped up a year, where we see some Union commanders planning to hijack a train to unleash a highly sophisticated master plan. As it so happens, they steal Johnny's engine, a big mistake.

Buster Keaton does a phenomenal performance as Johnny. His face and character is ideal for this type of comedy. He reminds me a lot of Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun movies (but, of course, less old). He is often ignorant of what is going on around him, leading to plenty of laughs. This also makes him a very charismatic character.

There are countless train related jokes. The first one comes right at the beginning, when we see Johnny being followed by two kids and a woman, in a line much like a train. The bulk of the movie is made up of Johnny running a train, either chasing or fleeing from the Union soldiers. The movement and maneuvering of the trains is beautiful. The stunt work is an incredible accomplishment. The finale is explosive.

The General was a lot of fun to watch. It gave me more laughs than most modern comedies, and had plenty of substance on top of that. This is enough for me to label it as one of the greatest comedies ever. After my first viewing, it instantly became one of my favorites. It is timeless gem that should be watched at least once by anyone interested in movies.
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Wonderful Humor, Action, & Melodrama
Snow Leopard13 July 2001
One of the great masterpieces of cinema, Buster Keaton's "The General" combines inventive humor with terrific action and fine melodrama, all beautifully and carefully planned and photographed. It is filled with subtle and wonderful details that make it well worth devoting your full attention to watching. As an extra bonus, it offers a fascinating look at the Civil War era, with many realistic details, inspired by a historical incident.

After a short opening sequence, the movie divides nicely into two halves. Johnny (Keaton) is a railway engineer, turned down in his attempts to enlist in the Confederate Army and subsequently rejected by his girl. Continuing with the railroad, one day his locomotive is stolen by Union spies, who also kidnap his girl. Johnny first chases the engine into Union territory to recapture it, and then is himself chased by the Northern Army as he attempts to return home. Both chases are filled with excitement and manic fun, with some breathtaking stunts by Keaton thrown in. It all leads up to a dramatic and memorable climax that includes many ironic and suggestive touches.

Keaton is at his best, with the story offering him a perfect showcase for his many talents. His slapstick and acrobatic skills are given free rein, and his character's stoic perseverance is a fine complement to the frantic action.

This belongs near the top of any list of great films, a classic worth watching and re-watching.
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9/10
It is more appreciated now than when it was released
calvinnme27 March 2017
This film flopped when it was released in late 1926 for several reasons. First, its premiere was delayed because "Flesh and the Devil" was such a sensation that it was held over an extra couple of weeks. Second, people came to the movies to see Buster Keaton the comedian, not Buster the filmmaker and director, which is more of the role he played here. The film was funny, but it was not gag after gag, like so many of Keaton's other films. Keaton plays a railroad engineer living in the South. A title card declares he has two loves - his girl and his engine. when the Civil War starts he tries to enlist, but is considered too valuable to be in the Army due to his profession. His girlfriend misunderstands, thinks him a coward, and says she won't speak to him again until he is in uniform.

Meanwhile, the Union forces have developed a plan to crush the South that involves stealing Buster's train. Unknown to Buster, his girlfriend is on the train at the time of the theft. Buster starts out in hot pursuit of the thieves to retrieve his train, still without the knowledge of his girl's captivity by the Union army.

Forgotten with the arrival of sound, the film revived - often cut up from its original length - in the 1950's because Buster didn't preserve his rights to the film and it fell into the public domain. That is the reason there are so many versions of The General out there today, often with poor video and hideous musical accompaniment.

Today The General is considered one of the best silent feature length films, and one of the few silent films to not only be on DVD but to get the Blu Ray treatment too. SHERLOCK, JR. is clever. OUR HOSPITALITY is hilarious. The General is both of these things. It's story driven, races to a climax, and is fueled by cute, clever, inventive gags.Buster recycled these gags when he was a writer for MGM years later in "A Southern Yankee".
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The Greatest Comedy Ever Made
Matt Barry20 November 2000
THE GENERAL represents the greatest achievement screen comedy ever accomplished. From the brilliant gag construction to the sheer excellence of the filmmaking technique, THE GENERAL is a hilarious and amazing journey into comedy. Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, Keaton brings brilliant gags into the story. The film begins when Keaton is told he is of no use to the South as a soldier, but as a train engineer. However, his girlfriend refuses to talk to him until he is in uniform. After the war has started, the girl is kidnapped by some Union raiders on Keaton's train, and so begins the greatest (and funniest) chase ever filmed. For the next 75 minutes, the viewer is in Keaton's world. His gags, routines and amazing slapstick serve to make this the greatest screen comedy ever filmed.

-Matt, age 16
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Keaton is amazing
A Box28 May 2000
I've seen one other silent movie in my life, but it was Mel Brooks's The Silent Movie so I don't know if it really counts. I really enjoyed The General overall, more than I thought I would as someone who was born after The Godfather.

The main thing that surprised me was the fact that I couldn't look down to write very many notes; any time I took my eyes off the screen I ran a serious risk of missing something. It seems to me that the film, even though it was long (or seemed so), it was very dense in terms of action. I imagine that since the movie has no dialogue, the filmmakers must make up for it by making it as visually interesting and entertaining as possible. I am accustomed to more modern movies with snappy dialogue and special effects and such-movies in which you can look down at your popcorn or kiss your date and not miss too much because you can hear pretty much what's happening. This was a nice change for me.

Obviously, I've never seen a Buster Keaton film, and I'm not even sure if I'd heard of him before this class. But I can see why he is so appealing in his films. I loved his facial expressions, particularly the stoic-but-crestfallen look in his eyes on the train when something else goes wrong. He also has great control of his body, as we discussed in class, and a fine sense of comic timing.

I found the film surprisingly funny. Many modern films that I think are funny (e.g. Austin Powers, Toy Story, American Beauty) rely largely on witty or outrageous dialogue for their humor. As a silent film, The General must rely mainly on images for its humor-the slapstick images of Johnnie falling over constantly, the unusual image of Johnnie riding up and down on the crossbar between the train wheels, the stereotype exploitation in the scene when the girl sweeps out the locomotive. I'm sure that some of the things that I considered amusing might not have been considered funny by the original audience, such as the record-scratch lightning bolts.

I really liked some of the cinematic techniques and blocking that Keaton used. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is when Johnnie is chopping wood on the train while the Southern army retreats in the opposite direction in the background. Even though the `real' army is pulling back, the one they didn't want is rushing into enemy territory. It's a nice integration of plot and character commentary. I also liked the way he kept cutting back and forth between the Yankees on their trains and Johnnie on his, at first the pursuer, then the pursuee. By continually showing us what both sides are doing, Keaton builds the tension between them, adds to the comic effect, and keeps the audience interested by always giving them something different to look at. This montage technique is used in nearly all action films and many comedy films today.

I did not realize that the rain and fire sound effects were added in later. I think they are interesting, and I can see why someone put them in, but I think I would prefer that the film be left the way it was originally shown. Or at least they should take out the chirping birds. Some people complained about the repetitiveness of the music, but I found the music quaint and very much in the character of the movie. It was as if each person or group had its own theme music, perhaps to make up for the lack of dialogue. The use of the `Beautiful Dreamer' love theme reminds me of the `Dreamweaver' love theme in Wayne's World that plays when Garth sees the blonde woman.

Although the battle scene was interesting, I agreed with much of the class that the movie could have ended earlier. The movie seemed to change a bit once the entire army got involved and the focus left Johnnie for a time. Perhaps they could have ended the battle scene with the Southern army lying in wait for the enemy, and then cut to a later scene in which Johnnie receives an honorary enlistment so he can get the girl. But hey, then Keaton wouldn't have gotten to play with the bridge fire and the dam; maybe audiences then weren't so different from us, and would prefer an exciting ending for a movie like this over a more subdued one. But I still think it changed the character of the movie and should have been changed somehow.

Overall I give it a 9/10. If you've never seen a silent movie, this is a great one to start with.
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7/10
Me And Mordaunt Vs. The World
Bill Slocum8 September 2013
To watch "The General" is to be both awed and amused at what takes place. The consensus view is correct: This is an amazing movie.

You know what's more amazing? Despite what most critics say, Buster Keaton made funnier, better films than this.

Keaton, a lifelong railroad buff, is engineer Johnny Gray, captain of "The General," a locomotive which carries passengers and freight across the American South. When the Civil War breaks out, he tries to enlist and thus please his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), but the authorities deem him more useful running trains. When Union spies seize the General with an idea of using it to burn bridges and disrupt the Confederate supply line, it's up to Gray to save the day.

New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall reviewed "The General" back in 1926 and expressed disappointment. "This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts," he wrote. People cite Hall's review as a classic example of "what-do-critics-know" but the more I read, the more I agreed with him. "The fun is not exactly plentiful," he wrote, noting Keaton here was too much the acrobat, too little the clown.

When I watched "The General," I felt disappointment, too. Like Hall's, it wasn't total; it's exciting and inventive and boasts some of the finest screen compositions I've ever seen. The technical expertise on display is astounding. It's just that the overall experience left me a bit flat.

First, you have what Roger Ebert liked to call "the idiot plot." Gray tries to enlist and is rejected by the army because he's too valuable as a train engineer. Annabelle apparently never learns this, for she rejects him as a coward. "I don't want you to speak to me again until you're in uniform," she huffs.

Either he's an idiot for not explaining the truth of the matter, or she's an idiot for preferring her lover be cannon fodder than a real asset to their cause. Anyway, Buster does manage to make this play later on: When he finally speaks to her, he is in uniform, an enemy uniform.

The other main issue involves what Lincoln called "the slows." A lot of the story is literally trainwatching. Buster does some brave, amazing stuntwork and throws in some clever gags (later joined by Mack, who's no Sibil Seely but still quite game), but it's basically a lot of watching trains go by. The craft here is in the precision of the camera-work and the split-second timing, not so much the comedy. In fact, except for Buster himself, everyone plays it completely straight, probably because this is real history being presented. Compared to other Keaton comedies, it feels a bit strait-jacketed by that.

"The General" is still a solid thrill comedy with some amusing one- liners ("If you lose this war, don't blame me," Johnny yells after being rejected) and brilliant sight gags, like the fussy Annabelle's rejection of unattractive firewood while Buster struggles to stoke the engine.

To me, that's enough for "The General" to be another good reason for loving Buster Keaton. I just can't understand it being the preeminent reason. Maybe critics can't really love a comedy for just making you laugh and laugh. I'm just glad Keaton made other movies at least as brilliant as "The General," and funnier, too.
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7/10
Very entertaining film
Hwos13 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Buster Keaton 's performance in "The General" was purely enjoyable. The story takes place during the civil war on centers on Johnnie Gray (Keaton) a train operator in the South. Johnnie is not accepted for service in the confederate army because of his value on the railroad, and suffers the shame of being home while the other men are fighting a war. When his beloved engine is hijacked by Union soldiers the unpredictable story goes into overdrive. Johnnie's adventure includes train chases, rescuing the love of his life, a daring escape, and a climactic battle. This film has a distinct action/adventure aspect, but at its core it is a brilliant comedy/drama. Keaton's performance is superb. He has the ability to effortlessly change your mood, and the mood of the film with his facial expressions and physical comedy. Keaton's character seems to make endless mistakes that work for the best, and good decisions in dangerous situations. It is easy to imagine Keaton as a major influence for a future comedians, and I personally felt like I was watching the Mel Brooks of a previous generation. "The General" was a fun film to watch with a true star Buster Keaton turning in a timeless heartfelt performance.
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8/10
Great physical comedy
refresh daemon5 November 2007
Buster Keaton always amazes me. He was truly one of the most hilarious deadpan screen clowns of early cinema. And The General, even clocking in at around three hours, is surprisingly watchable based on his physical performance alone.

Granted, I still admit that I prefer the silent clowns in shorts, because it can be a bit exhausting to watch them in an entire feature, especially since they are often strings of vignettes thrown together and my modern brain prefers to edit out everything that's unnecessary, but some of the joy in these films is found in those very moments. There are multiple points in the General, a story about a Southern engineer that has to rescue his beloved from the clutches of the North in the Civil War, where Keaton's character, Johnnie Gray, has to stop his train, jump out, and remove something from the tracks, which in itself can be quite boring, but the way that Keaton injects physical comedy into those moments keeps me entertained.

And it's a marvel how so many realistic, yet comedic stunts that Keaton could come up with. It's nothing fantastic like some of his other films, but it's still funny. And I think the strongest point of his comedy is his completely stonefaced response to all adversity--but he lets you see just a little his plight in his eyes and it's just enough to know that he is frightened, but that the rest of him doesn't react similarly creates such an amusing dissociation that it goes from bizarre to funny. Whether he's pratfalling due to surprise or erroneously succeeding at something he's unskilled in and being shocked by it, that response of his is winning.

But the General does show its age a little. It exists in a time when people were still getting quite used to movies and so there is a lot of space that doesn't get edited out to help people get a better sense of the context. I wouldn't dare cut those moments out of this film, even if I could re-edit it, because the space always had something going on, but at the same time, this film, if made today, would be cut to one-and-a-half, or two hours and pack in the comedy more tightly. The plot and story are simple, but exist more than to just help the comedy move along--except at the end when the first story was accomplished. Then we move into a second extraneous, but still amusing, story regarding a battle between the North and the South that could've been excised and still having a decent, though simple, story.

I didn't really love the score that the DVD company attached to it, which is a number of classical pieces end on end. I think a new commissioned soundtrack would've better matched the piece, but I guess we get what we get. And on the plus side, you can always mute the movie and play whatever on top of it.

Is it perfect? No. But despite the age it shows, it still holds up as an enjoyable work from one of cinema's greatest physical comedians. If you want to spend three hours with a silent clown, this is not a bad way to go. 8/10.
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5/10
Incredibly impressive visuals but totally lacking in story
Seamus Dowling9 March 2011
Buster Keaton's The General(1926) would not be made in this day and age, at least not with the use of a real moving locomotive. Keaton risked life and limb performing many amazing and dangerous practical stunts on and around the moving train that provided for a great spectacle but without a strong story and strong characters the film becomes little more than a series of spectacular but meaningless stunts. The real love affair of the picture is between Johnny Gray and his beloved locomotive, The General. The Annabelle character is so shallow and empty that it becomes impossible to believe that Johnny would care at all about winning back her affections. Indeed, Johnny cares far more about getting his train back from the Union Army than he does about winning back Annabelle but the human love story just left this reviewer feeling cold.

It was rather surprising to see the film portray the Confederate Army as noble and righteous while portraying the Union Army as bumbling and clueless but the point of view lacked gravity and meaning as the grave circumstances behind the US Civil War were totally ignored. The simplistic "us vs. them" view of this momentous and tragic chapter of American History does a great disservice to the men, women and children on all sides who lost their homes and lives in the war. There is certainly a place for comedy in the horrors of war, as Chaplin brilliantly demonstrated in The Great Dictator(1940), but Keaton's failure to show any of the depth of the historic events of the time left me unsatisfied and a bit annoyed by the treatment of the US Civil War. I have a hard time understanding the near universal praise for The General(1926), to me the picture is akin to a modern film that has incredible action scenes but zero story.
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8/10
Silent era comedy classic
grantss8 April 2017
1862, Georgia, USA. The American Civil War is in its second year and Johnnie Gray is barred from enlisting. He is a train engineer and the Confederate Army feel he is more valuable to the Southern cause in his current role than in the army. This frustrates Johnnie and has estranged him from his sweetheart Annabelle, who views him as a coward. Then his beloved engine, The General, is stolen by Union spies and is heading for Union lines. Moreover, Annabelle is on board. Johnnie sets off after the two loves of his life.

Great comedy from the silent era, directed and starring one of the greatest comedy directors and actors of that era, Buster Keaton. This is a rollicking adventure complete with wonderfully thought-out and performed physical comedy and other sight gags. Some very clever use of the plot to generate the comedy.

The plot itself isn't overly profound, but crams in a lot of action and adventure, plus some romance.

Very entertaining.
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10/10
Keaton shows why he was king of comedy stunts
SimonJack6 March 2017
"The General" is one of the great films and treasures of the silent era. It's among the best movies of the talented comedy actor, Buster Keaton. In this film, Keaton shows the athletic ability and courage that made him one of the best of the early comedians who performed their own stunts. His physical antics on and off his train, The General, support his title as king of comedy stunts.

All the silent era comedy actors seemed to have lots of energy. And, many had daring, courage, and even madness at times. Those were the actors who did all or most of their own stunts. While there were some stunt men around in the early 1900s, it wasn't until the last of the silent years and dawn of sound pictures that stuntmen were a regular part of the cast of films that required any amount of derring-do. And, while a small number of actors today will still do some of their own stunts, nothing can compare to the actors of old who performed their own high-risk and dangerous stunts – and sometimes those for other actors.

The five best early actors at doing stunts were Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix and Yakima Canutt. The latter two specialized in Westerns, and besides acting and doing stunt work, Mix and Canutt regularly rode and performed in the rodeo circuit. Lloyd was versatile in his venues, but excelled at high stunts on buildings, and sometimes with wild animals. Fairbanks excelled in swashbuckler stunts, sliding down the sails of ships, swinging from anything hanging aloft and jumping (with the help of trampolines) into windows. Keaton was even more versatile.

As a child actor in vaudeville, Keaton learned how to fall to avoid injury. He called his technique, soft falls or landings. But even with his training and practice, his film roles with derring-do often left him bruised at the least. At other times, he had suffered injuries from slight to serious. Still, he had become known for his physical resiliency

During the filming of "The General" in 1926, Keaton was knocked unconscious by canon fire. He suffered a broken ankle while filming the 1922 short, "The Electric House." And, he broke his neck during the 1924 shooting of "Sherlock Jr.," but didn't know it until years later.

This movie has an interesting plot, set during the U.S. Civil War. It opens with a scene and script that reads, "The Western and Atlantic Flyer speeding into Marietta Georgia, in the spring of 1861." The train seems to be traveling about 30 miles per hour. But the film is almost entirely about action and the comedy in the action, involving the train. There is an element of romance. The cast all are very good. The photography is superb. Much of the action with trains is filmed in West-central Oregon, from Eugene to Cottage Grove.

There's no information about sound at all, so I assume the music we hear with the film is soundtrack that was added for modern viewing. It probably is meant to replicate the piano accompaniment that was usual with silent films in theaters of the day. This is one instance when I think the piano playing would have been better. The music seems to go overboard at times.

This is one of the early great films from the silent era that showcase the talent and early mastery of movie-making skills. It's a fun movie with strong visuals that even a modern family of all ages should enjoy.
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8/10
Long live Buster Keaton, one of the great actor of all time
DonAlberto27 December 2016
THE GENERAL When one watches for the first time the General great things happen: laughter, relief, a never-ending smile…and that old sniff of old good cinema. I must admit not many films out there give the pleasure this one has. It is like everything just falls right into place. Overall the movie is a perfect account of all the things that make comedy great. Simplicity, good and twisted plot, a sense of the unexpected becoming more and more real…Do you feel me, don't you? It has been attributed to Chalie Chaplin the following sentence: "to make a comedy film you only need three things: a park, a woman and a police officer". We can safely say The General stands up to it. Well, there is no park in The General, although the landscape is used wisely, but there's a woman. As for the police officer…well, not exactly. What we do have in the film are soldiers. I'm afraid of telling you the plot of the story because I don't want to spoil anything. I reckon it'd be better if you find it out for yourselves. Well, let's just say that Buster Keaton plays the main character, an engineer whose beloved locomotive has been stolen by Union spies. From that point on, he does everything in his power to get it back. There's nothing more for me to say but…Enjoy yourselves!!
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7/10
The General (1926)
Warning: Spoilers
When watching The General (1926), the similarities between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are almost unmistakable. The story was original and humorous and the performance by Buster Keaton was pleasing. What I didn't like was the fact that the protagonist still was pursuing the girl who was so quick to leave him when she thought he wasn't brave, and then ends up staying with her at the end. He is too good for her. I thought the stunt where the bridge gives out and the train falls was very well done and must have cost a fortune. There were scenes where I found myself laughing out loud, and scenes where I was bored. So unfortunately the film doesn't do a great job at keeping the viewer glued to the screen, but overall it was enjoyable.
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7/10
The General
j-maxon126 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I feel the The General is a great silent film because even though the story line is relatively complicated the way in which each character played their part and the way it was filmed made it easy to follow. I am fairly new to the silent film experience and when I saw that this movie was partially a comedy I was expecting something more along the lines of Charlie Chaplin, however I was pleasantly surprised at Buster Keatons more subtle comedic style. I felt that the film was well shot shot considering the technology of the day. I was actually shocked during the scene where the Rock River Bridge collapsed under The Texas. Knowing full well it was not special effects I couldn't believe the producers would spare the expense of destroying a locomotive and an entire bridge. This movie is sure to be one of my favorite silent films.
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7/10
My Second Favorite Buster Keaton Film
gavin69427 January 2010
Johnnie Gray, a train engineer, tries to enlist in the Confederate Army to impress his girlfriend. Unfortunately, he is rejected because his role as engineer is deemed more important. Lucky for Gray, he is given the opportunity to prove himself when a band of Union soldiers in disguise hijack a train.

At the time of this film's release, it was a flop and considered to be not very funny. Since then, it has gone on to be declared one of the greatest films of all time. Funny how that works. I would tend to agree that it isn't really very funny, but it is a great film for a variety of reasons.

Buster Keaton was an amazing actor and director. He was willing to put himself in dangerous situations for a laugh -- he was his own stuntman, right there when the train falls in the water, really sitting on the side of a moving train and on the front of it... he could have been killed. And this was captured on film flawlessly.

Personally, I enjoyed his "Sherlock Jr" better. I thought the tricks were better and the action funnier. It had a faster pace, too, that kept me hooked enough to watch it a few times. "The General" was not boring, but as a silent film it could have done more to grab the audience and I'm not sure that it did.
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10/10
Fall in love
Chrissie11 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I first encountered Buster Keaton in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Reviewers made frequent reference to his status as a "silent film great", but I paid no mind. To me, silent films were Chaplin, and Chaplin leaves me cold. And thus, in my mind, silent film buffs were arty snots who feigned interest in quaint old things to show how sophisticated they were. Nobody, I thought, could really like that stuff.

But I joined Netflix, and their little recommendation system suggested "The General". The picture of Buster Keaton atop a locomotive promised some action. The guy had been funny in "Forum". I could stream it, effectively for free, as a bonus while awaiting my next DVD. What did I have to lose?

Aside from my preconceptions, that is.

Within fifteen seconds I totally forgot that I was watching one of those classic silent films. I was totally engrossed in letting Buster tell me a story. And as the film progressed, I moved from rapt interest to amusement to amazement to -- well, to something akin to falling in love. I would never see silent film -- or, of course, silent film buffs -- the same way again.

Keaton's Johnnie Gray is an earnest, conscientious, courteous little fellow who gets undeservedly emasculated: He's rejected by the Confederate army (because he's more valuable on the railroad), and by his girl and her family. And it is in Johnie's low moment that we first see how Keaton handles his films: a death-defying stunt, in which Buster rides the connecting rod of an antique narrow-gauge locomotive -- isn't played as a stunt. It's played as subtle, poignant humor, with Johnnie's beloved General comforting him by rocking him gently like a mother rocking her baby.

A year later, a sad and forsaken Johnnie still tends his train. His girl, Annabelle Lee, is about to board, heading off to tend to her wounded father. She still loves Johnnie -- else why would she go to the trouble of taunting him with her brother's war ribbons while pretending to ignore him? Johnnie, silent and subdued, watches with his haunted eyes.

But Union spies steal Johnny's beloved General -- with Annabelle Lee aboard. Johnnie takes off in pursuit, undaunted by any obstacle. He wins our admiration and sympathy not because he's asking for them; he's too busy recovering his train, his girl, and his honor. He wins us over because he's who he is: brave, resourceful, and dogged in pursuit of his goal.

The things he does in that pursuit take your breath away. Suffice it to say he gets hold of another train, and does things aboard as it speeds along, as nonchalantly as you might reach for a light switch. A moment that stands out for me -- neglected by other commentators -- finds Buster casually riding along on the cowcatcher, picking splinters out of his hands, until he notices an uncoupled boxcar hindering his progress. How he deals with the recalcitrant boxcar has to be seen to be appreciated. And there are countless such moments throughout this gem of a film.

As the chase transitions, with Union officers chasing Johnnie as he heads home with his prizes, we begin to see why Johnnie loves Annabelle Lee. She's out of her element, but proves brave and resourceful and eager to help, for all her foolish moments. She never apologizes to Johnnie for misjudging him, but he never asks her to. She simply recognizes him at last for who he was all along, and shares his joy when the Confederate Army does the same.

If you've never seen a silent film, or seen others but wondered what all the fuss is about, take a chance on Keaton. And you can't do better than "The General". You may find yourself becoming one of the inexplicable silent film buffs.
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Historically accurate and inaccurate
fplum29 November 2004
A distant cousin of mine Marion Ross was a Sgt Maj for Andrew's Raiders, which is the event that the movie is based on. In the real story, the Yankee spies run out of fuel and water and are captured in Chattanooga TN. They were all tried as spies and convicted. Some of them were sentenced to hang, my cousin included. Needless to say I wanted to view the movie, to see how you could make a comedy out of a story which for some people was a tragedy.

As I viewed the movie I found that the first part of it was historically correct from the point where the engineer (Buster Keaton) and passengers went into the train station for breakfast and the union spies stole the train. The General's conductor, William Fuller, gave chase on a handcar. Yonah, an engine he commandeered from an ironworks in the town of Toward. He had to abandon the Yonah at Kingston, the tireless Fuller pursued the raiders on foot to Adairsville, where he found another, more powerful engine, the Texas, sitting at a southbound siding. Since the General had already passed, Fuller had no time to turn the train around. Undaunted, he went after them with the Texas at full steam in reverse -- still going twice as fast as the General. The rest I have already told you about.

I am not allowed to list my url but if you Google 'the great locomotive chase fplum' you can go to my website and read the full story (twice actually) as well as see pictures of Marion Ross, the monument to Andrew's Raiders at the Chattanooga National Cemetery, Marion's Medal of Honor (First Army Soldier to be awarded posthumous), and The General.

However the movie departs from history when Buster starts tearing apart the rail car and stops for water (another fine Keaton stunt with the water hose) and they do not get captured. Thus the movie becomes entertaining and leaves the knowledge that those who died bravely were not dishonored in any way. This is my first serious viewing of Buster Keaton and I loved it and will attempt to view others. (I also got the Wal-Mart special of 2 Keaton movies and two Chaplin movies for $5.50, it's worth the money). Now I want to see Walt Disney's "The Great Locomotive Chase", which is a more historical version of those events.
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6/10
The great long train chases
Daniel Kincaid6 September 2007
"The General" is set during the Civil War and features Buster Keaton as a Confederate chain engineer chasing after Union soldiers that steal his train. Keaton handled the lead role well and the supporting cast was also solid. The film has impressive cinematography and a score that is good at first, but becomes repetitive.

The enlistment scene near the beginning was amusing. As was the "under the table" scene and the point were a group of Union soldiers desperately try to fix a part in the train tracks near the end. The film's battle scene was well-shot and amusing and the ending of the film was well-done.

Where this film languishes is in the overly long stretch of scenes on the trains, which, while well-shot, become repetitive. I didn't find a lot of humor in the train scenes, which makes the train scenes seem mostly like a precursor to modern action films rather than comedy. Since a lot of the film is consumed by the repetitive train chases, I was left disappointed.
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