The General

The General ★★★★

It’s hard to imagine Buster Keaton without trains. Trains play key roles in so many of his shorts and features (One Week, Our Hospitality, and Sherlock Jr., to name a few) and a train is the defining element—indeed the title character—of The General. Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Southern engineer whose beloved train is stolen by Union spies at the start of the Civil War. Desperate to retrieve it—and impress the belle (Marion Mack) who has been kidnapped by said spies—Johnnie embarks on a bumbling, bombastic, and ultimately successful quest to thwart the Northerners. Aside from the troubling choice to make Confederates the heroes, as well as ill-advised attempts to play battlefield deaths as slapstick in the climax, The General stands the test of time as evidence of the scale of Keaton’s ambitions—and his ability to fulfill them. (He co-wrote and co-directed the film with Clyde Bruckman.) The impressive train stunts are astonishing, culminating with an engine and car tumbling into a river beneath a massive, collapsing wooden bridge. You could also argue, I suppose, that the back-and-forth structure of the action—with Johnnie at first pursuing the spies, then they pursuing him; with scenes of destruction of train tracks followed by scenes of repair—is meant to lampoon the pointlessness of war rather than celebrate one side over the other. Either way, The General is one of the most startling reminders that action spectacle wasn’t invented in the 1980s, but part of cinema from its earliest decades.

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