Advertised as “Love, Locomotives, and Laughs,” The General (1927) is considered to be Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, combining his genius for physical comedy with his intense interest in trains. He invested a great deal of time and money (a whopping $750,000) to ensure authen- ticity and to craft the film in accordance with his artistic vision—strong plot, attention to details,
and sophisticated humor.
The story is based on the capture of a Confederate train (and the train used in the film is this actual train, the General) by Union spies in 1862, and its subsequent pursuit. Keaton reworked the story from the point of view of a Southern train engineer with two passions, his girl and his train. This is illustrated poignantly when he presents a photograph of himself and his locomotive to his sweetheart, a ditzy Southern Belle who will try his patience throughout the film. True to his name, the “Great Stone Face” remains deadpan and unflappable, expressing restrained emotions through subtle and economical gestures. We know he is exasperated, surprised, or dismayed through a blink, an arched eyebrow, or a raised arm.
The film itself can be divided into two halves. First, Keaton’s beloved engine is stolen and he pursues it, unaware that his abducted sweetheart is on board the fleeing train. He manages to rescue both girl and train, leading to a second pursuit that concludes spectacularly with the second train crashing through a high bridge into a river. Filmed in Oregon, with a full-sized, 19th- century locomotive (the Texas, also involved in the historical chase) and a dummy engineer, the scene had to be captured in one take. It was the most expensive shot of the entire silent film era,
a $42,000 sight-gag.
Each scene in the first half of the film has a counterpart in the second half, and the action is non-stop. Keaton shows his genius for physical comedy by calmly climbing in and out of the moving train cab, running in front of the moving train to remove obstacles from the tracks, balancing on the cowcatcher. His daredevil plans involve cannons, water towers, and telegraph lines, and he pursues his train on foot, by handcar, and wooden bicycle, performing dangerous and complex stunts with grace and athleticism. At the end, the stoic engineer gets both girl and train!