Ninety-six years ago today, the silent film film The General premiered in Tokyo, Japan. It is of surprise to no one that I am a huge Buster Keaton fan. This film is one of my very favorites and upon researching it, I learned it is also one of Buster’s favorites. The entire film is attached below, do yourself a favor and watch it.
In 1989, The General was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Title: The General
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Produced by: Joseph Schenck, Buster Keaton
Screenplay by: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Based on: The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack
Music by: William P. Perry (1926), Carl Davis (1987), Robert Israel (1995), Baudime Jam (1999), Joe, Hisaishi (2004), Timothy Brock (2005), Angelin Fonda (2017)
Cinematography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings
Edited by: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Distributed by: United Artists
Release date: December 31, 1926 (Tokyo), February 5, 1927 (New York City)
Running time: 75 minutes (8 reels) (times vary with different versions)
Country: United States
Language: Silent film
Box office: $1 million
Western & Atlantic Railroad train engineer Johnnie Gray is in Marietta, Georgia to see one of the two loves of his life, his fiancée Annabelle Lee — the other being his locomotive, The General—when the American Civil War breaks out. He hurries to be first in line to enlist in the Confederate Army, but is rejected because he is too valuable in his present job, but is not told that reason. On leaving, he runs into Annabelle’s father and brother, who beckon to him to join them in line, but he walks away, giving them the impression that he does not want to enlist. Annabelle informs Johnnie that she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform.
A year passes and Annabelle receives word that her father has been wounded and travels north on the W&ARR to see him with The General pulling the train. When it makes a stop, the passengers detrain for a quick meal. As previously planned, Union spies led by Captain Anderson use the opportunity to steal the train. Anderson’s objective is to burn all the railroad bridges he passes, thus preventing reinforcement and resupply of the Confederate army. Annabelle becomes an inadvertent prisoner of the raiders.
Johnnie gives chase, first on foot, then by handcar and boneshaker bicycle, before reaching the station at Kingston. He alerts the army detachment there, which boards another train to give chase, with Johnnie manning the locomotive known as the Texas. However, the flatcars are not hooked up to the engine and the troops are left behind. By the time Johnnie realizes he is alone, it is too late to turn back.
The Union agents try various methods to shake their pursuer, including disconnecting their trailing car and dropping railroad ties on the tracks. As the duel continues northward, the Confederate Army of Tennessee is ordered to retreat and the Northern army advances in its wake. Johnnie finally notices he is surrounded by Union soldiers and the hijackers see that Johnnie is by himself. Johnnie stops the Texas and runs into the forest to hide.
At nightfall, Johnnie stumbles upon the Northern encampment. Hungry, he climbs through a window to steal some food, but hides underneath the table when some officers enter. He overhears their plan for a surprise attack and that the Rock River Bridge is essential for their supporting supply trains. He then sees Annabelle brought in; she is taken to a room under guard while they decide what to do with her. Johnnie manages to knock out both guards and free Annabelle and they escape into the rainy woods.
The next day, Johnnie and Annabelle find themselves near a railway station, where Union soldiers and equipment are being organized for the attack. Seeing The General, Johnnie devises a plan to warn the South. After sneaking Annabelle onto a boxcar, Johnnie steals his engine back. Two Union trains, including the Texas, set out after the pair, while the Union attack is immediately launched. In a reversal of the first chase, Johnnie now has to fend off his pursuers. Finally, he starts a fire behind The General in the center of the Rock River Bridge to cut off the Union’s important supply line.
Reaching friendly lines, Johnnie warns the Confederate commander of the impending attack and their forces rush to defend the bridge. Meanwhile, Annabelle is reunited with her convalescing father. The pursuing Texas drives onto the burning bridge, which collapses. When Union soldiers try to ford the river, Confederate fire drives them back.
Afterward, Johnnie returns to his locomotive to find the Union officer whom he had knocked out in escaping earlier has now regained consciousness. He takes the officer prisoner and is spotted by the general leaving the locomotive with him. As a reward for his bravery, he is commissioned a lieutenant and given the captured officer’s sword.
Returning to The General with Annabelle, he tries to kiss his girl but has to return the salutes of troops walking past. Johnnie finally uses his left hand to embrace Annabelle while using his right to blindly salute the passing soldiers while the screen fades.