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If there’s one thing that has to be said about Buster Keaton’s “The General”, it’s that it is pure movie magic. The film centers on a train engineer named Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton), his beloved train- for which the film is named- and his girl, Annabelle (Marion Mack). At the start, Keaton’s character happily goes about doing his job. But soon, war breaks out, and men from all over rush to enlist and support the southern cause. Johnny is turned away by recruiters, and not much later on, his engine is stolen by a group of scheming Union soldiers. With great determination, he goes after them- not knowing that his other beloved has been captured as well. This is where the conflict in the story lies, and Keaton directs all the action superbly.

With a plot that could have easily been played as a story of heartbreak and tragedy, Keaton went the other way with it, including scene after scene of uproarious gags. Being a silent film, “The General” relies mainly on the visual aspect of storytelling, and it is quite apparent that Keaton understood that all too well. The film’s numerous sight gags are executed brilliantly. Not a one of them is out-of-place in the course of the action as what normally starts as a humorous skit later evolves into something important to the scene. This technique is utilized in the scene in which Johnny hides under a table at a house belonging to the Union soldiers. One of the soldiers begins to smoke a cigar, and as he holds it by his side, he accidentally burns a hole in the table cloth. He takes up a section of the table cloth and worriedly examines it as we, the audience, fear the ensuing discovery of Johnny underneath. In a moment of humor, the soldier doesn’t notice Johnny squirming and Keaton’s character later uses the hole to look through as he observes the arrival of Annabelle just before she is led away. This is just one instance of the clever technique Keaton employs repeatedly throughout the film.

Now to Keaton himself: As always, he gives a wonderfully physical performance, displaying his great agility, which is used to great effect. In almost every scene, he is running, jumping, tumbling, falling and doing all variations of these actions. He commits himself to the performance and after all the rapid movement, we are still able to clearly discern an endearing character who wins our hearts.

It is a marvel that Keaton was able to give such a demanding performance and still exhibit skill behind the camera. He had a complete understanding of how a story should be told and he masterfully tells us one in a direct, concise manner. There is not a single wasted scene in the film- everything that is shown is necessary to the plot and the editing cuts out any fat that would have dragged the story down while maintaining all the details needed for the audience to comprehend what is going on at all times. To further delve into the technical aspects of “The General”, I must say that the cinematography of the film is marvelous. The incredible diversity of shots and the perfect framing blows me away here. The most apt example that I can think of comes from the scene in which the Confederates are retreating and the Union army is advancing. Johnny’s engine goes by a field and as he hurries to put more wood in the engine’s burner, we see the troops in the background marching in the opposite direction. This sequence is done as well as it possibly could have been, as it displays the present struggle- which we have been following for some time- and it gives us an idea of what is happening outside of Keaton’s ordeal which will eventually form the climax later on. I also have to note that the extensive use of trains in this picture is jaw-dropping. The amount of coordination that went into that had to have been stressful, but Keaton manages to pull it off anyway.

Finally, I come to the climax/resolution of “The General”. After rescuing Annabelle from the Union soldiers and warning the Confederates of the advancing northern army, a battle takes place. The humor that has been present throughout is maintained in this sequence but the potency of war is somewhat represented. Keaton once again employs his technique of taking something humorous and integrating it into the story as an important component. Near the end of the battle, Johnny struggles with the operation of a canon and proceeds to fire it straight up into the air. Initially this is funny, but the cannonball destroys a dam which sweeps up the Union forces and leads to a Confederate victory. The entire battle sequence further displays the mastery at work in the editing and cinematographic departments of the film.

After the battle, Johnny returns to his southern town where he reunites with Annabelle. The Confederate general finds him and replaces the soldier’s jacket which Johnny had used with a new lieutenant’s jacket. From there, Johnny goes to enlist once again- beginning once more the cycle of events that occurred at the start of the film. This time, however, Johnny is admitted into the army. He takes his sweetheart by his engine, The General, and there, they kiss as Johnny salutes his fellow soldiers marching by. This is a great place to return to, for, in the beginning of the film, Johnny sat on the side of the train- alone- as it began to move away. But, now, he has both of his loves together and his position in society has been elevated as a result of his heroic endeavor. This ending could not be much more perfect and perhaps it helps to sum up the theme of “The General” which could be: Love conquers all.

5 out of 5 stars



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