CAPSULE: Buster Keaton joined with Clyde Bruckman to write and direct a comic account of a true incident, the Great Locomotive Chase. Keaton plays his usual nebbish character, in this case Southerner Johnny Gray whose girl will not marry him if he does not enlist as a soldier and the Confederacy will not draft him because he is too valuable where he is as a locomotive engineer. Then Union agents steal Gray's beloved train engine in a plot against the Southern troops. Keaton has great sight gags and goes to amazing ends to get the thrills he wants. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
[It is not really clear if one can evaluate and rate a silent film on the same scale one would use to evaluate a current film. If it could be done, this would be the silent film to use. This is a film that has many of the current virtues of films. It has comedy, drama, romance, and historical spectacle. Instead of car chases it has one long locomotive chase. It uses only minimal special effects. If it needs an image from the Civil War it just re-staged the event and filmed it. As the most spectacular of its images it has a locomotive ride over a railroad trestle over a river. The trestle buckles under the weight of the train and dumps a whole train into the river. And how did Keaton stage this spectacle? He obtained a full-sized locomotive. He got himself a trestle somehow, and he had the trestle collapse for his camera. Try doing that, George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.
I have to recommend THE GENERAL, a silent comedy that takes place during the Civil War. It was underwhelming at the box-office and was almost completely forgotten until the 1950s when it fell into public domain and it started to be seen by a generation who did not have bad memories of the Civil War. The film is a beautiful re- creation of the same civil war that Matthew Brady photographed. In spite of all the humor--and Buster Keaton was a comic genius and an amazing acrobat--you can learn a lot about what that war looked like. The film is a dramatization of the Great Locomotive Chase, an actual event of the war. Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a strategic railhead for the South that the Union desperately wanted to put out of action. On April 12, 1862, Union soldiers and Union scouts crept into Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) Georgia and stole a train intending to use it as a moving platform to destroy bridges, telegraph lines, track, and it was hoped make it to Chattanooga and points north to do to the South all the damage they could manage.
Buster Keaton plays the engineer whose train was seized and who has to chase his own train to get it back. THE GENERAL works as an exciting action film and as a comedy at the same time, not an easy balance to strike. Keaton always had a way with props and sets, using them in unexpected ways. The climax has a train crossing the Rock River Bridge, which collapses under its weight. As I said it is no special effect--they actually intentionally collapsed the bridge and wrecked a train for the spectacle of it.
Today THE GENERAL is considered one of a handful of the greatest films this country has ever made. If you have never seen THE GENERAL, even if you do not like silent films, this film is a prize and a great film experience.
By the way, if the situation of the stolen train seems familiar, Walt Disney used the same incident as the basis for his studio's THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (1956). Disney tells the story from the UNION point of view; Keaton tells it from the Confederate point of view.
Initially a financial failure, THE GENERAL has been reevaluated as being one of the greatest silent films ever made
I rate THE GENERAL high +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Portions of this review have appeared previously in the MT VOID.
Film Credits: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017925/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1008166_general?
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2018 Mark R. Leeper