One of the most fondly remembered works of silent cinema, Keaton and Bruckman’s The General is a masterpiece in both daring comic performance and narrative simplicity – many of the greatest visual jokes ever filmed all revolve around one man and his train.
That man is Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a railroad engineer whose attempt to enlist in the American Civil War is refused – which fails to impress his fiancée Annabelle (Marion Mack). When his train is stolen by enemy soldiers, he takes pursuit in another engine, eventually uncovering an invasion plan, rescuing a captive Annabelle, and becoming an unlikely war hero.
Recent cinemagoers have praised Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) for playing out a simple chase movie concept to maximum effect, and The General is the silent comedy equivalent. As both Johnnie and his enemies come up with increasingly cunning ways to derail the other, Johnnie must climb up, over, and around his train in order to keep himself literally on track.
Every physical aspect of the train engine becomes a comedic prop, sometimes dangerously – Keaton performed all his stunts himself, including running along the roof, jumping between carriages, and sitting on the cow-catcher while removing obstacles from the track in front, all with the train in motion.
And while the railroad may not be an obvious setting for a chase, countless perils are derived from the environment around Johnnie, culminating in a famous shot in which a burning bridge collapses as a train travels over it. It’s Keaton’s ability to remain steadfastly serious while performing astonishing physical heroics, rather than resorting to over-acted goofiness, that allows the chase to be dramatic as well as humourous. Very few intertitles are needed; this is pure visual entertainment; silent cinema at its finest.
One of the few intertitles, however, at the film’s opening, states that the train is one of the two loves of Johnnie’s life along with Annabelle; while it’s the pursuit of protecting both of these loves which drives his character, The General is all about a man and his train. It’s very fitting that when Johnnie and Annabelle kiss in the film’s closing shot, they’re leaning against his beloved engine. Let’s just hope he doesn’t let it out of his sight this time.