“If you lose this war don’t blame me” says Johnnie Gray aka Buster Keaton in the magnificent 1926 war-drama and comedy The General. The great Orson Welles said of this as:” The greatest civil war film ever made, the greatest war film ever made and possibly the greatest film ever made.” The film has a highly engaging plot-line along with some of the greatest location shots in the silent movie era.
Johnnie is an engineer on the Western and Atlantic railroad; a fancy name for the pilot of a steam locomotive, The General. His exultant world consists of his beloved engine and adored inamorata. As is the case with life, nothing is perpetual; the American civil war reaches the outskirts of the town. Though he is indifferent to all other things other than those two, he is obligated to try to enlist in army due to the overzealous father and brother of his girl, Annabelle. He tries to join the army but is not allowed to do so as the person in charge feels he can be of more use to the Southern states as an engineer. Miscommunication on the army’s part leads to a notion that he is unfit for the army. His to be in-laws and fiancé believe that he never tried to join the forces; he is a coward. Rejected and heartbroken he engages himself in his other passion amidst the war and a year passes by. Meanwhile, a General of the Union along with his spy conspires to steal a train from the southern states. Their plan is to steal the train and while returning to the northern lines destroying the bridges so that the confederate army cannot get their supply.
On the day of performance of the act, the girl is also in the train. During the dinner stop at “Big Shanty” they steal the train, the general and two of its coaches. The girl is also in the train with them; she returned to her baggage to take something when the spies took over. Johnnie runs behind his beloved engine in pursuit for some distance to no avail. A series of comical chase sequences follows: Johnnie in a handcar, Johnnie in a bicycle and Johnnie running until he reaches a post of Southern soldiers. He explains the situation and proceeds to chase the enemy along with two coaches full of soldiers in another engine. A hilarious situation is created as he finds out after going some distance that the two coaches behind the engine are absent; we are shown that they are left behind at the outpost due to the missing pin between the engine and the coaches. Unwilling to turn back, Johnnie pursues the northerners alone along the tracks in the engine. They try to put him off from the tracks in many ways but somehow he manages to be in their tail. Some of them wanted to stop and fight but the Captain believed they would be outnumbered. They weren’t aware of the fact that a single soul was chasing them, neither was the brave-heart aware that Annabelle, his lost love was on the train he was chasing.
Ultimately they reached the northern line and realize that one man single-handedly pursued them. Johnnie flees on reaching enemy territory and overhears their plan of sending supplies to the war-front. There only he finds about Annabelle being kept as a hostage. During the dead of the night, he disguised as a union soldier rescues her from the enemy and proceeds to take his engine the next day from the soldiers. A chase begins again, but the cat and mouse have traded places. Now, he creates all sorts of problems for the Union soldiers- leaving behind pieces of wood on the track, changing lines, and burning bridges to cut off their supply; he does everything a true hero should do, but with a tint of comedy. He reaches his own troops just in time to notify them of a surprise attack. In the ensuing battle the South wins; he returns to his adored General to find the enemy general lying unconscious. He is given a uniform and a post of Lieutenant. Thus he gets both his loves at the end.
In this film, the script is not only mere entertainment; it also presents us with alternate version of reality, as if the South won the battle. Among the many themes of the film, the romance of Johnnie and Annabelle, Johnnie’s love for the engine, his reluctance to join the war at first all can be viewed as that his world only consists of his engine and Annabelle. But when Annabelle tells him to join the army, his tenacious attempts and his tireless shadowing of The General all shows his love for both of them. The shots along the countryside, hills and streams combined with the engines, is not only beautiful but also very much difficult to execute especially at such early days of cinema. The gags besides being hilarious are also some great stunts of the silent era.
The narrative always plays a dynamic role in any silent film. The screenplay is a tight, attention seeking and mind gripping sequence of comedy, drama and action. It is carefully constructed keeping in mind the details and the artistic values. These details are which makes up for the lack of dialogues, informing a viewer of the intricacies of the chronicles without too much intervention of the title cards. It is because of these minute details, the film is relevant today not only as a silent classic but also as a great film in the history of movies.
Film Score: 88
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Screenplay: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman Cinematography: Burt Haines, Dev Jennings Editing: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Jim Farley.