Year: 1927 Director: Buster Keaton
This silent film is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece. Keaton is mainly thought of for his comedy, and while this is not without it, it’s more of an action-adventure, given that a thrilling train chase takes up most of the movie. Set during the American Civil War and based on an actual incident, it also delivers remarkable realism on the historical side.
The hero of the film is Johnny Gray, played by Keaton himself. He’s a train engineer and when the war breaks out, his girlfriend Annabel Lee [Marion Mack] reminds him to go and enlist. If the names aren’t enough of a clue, it is established that we are in the South. Except for the historical fidelity, there’s no particular reason for it being one side or the other. I find it to the film’s credit that it avoids any political issues while still relating history. Ultimately it is seen as Johnny’s fulfillment of his duty that makes him a worthy hero, without regard to the side he is working for.
Unfortunately he can’t seem to fill the role of a soldier as he is rejected from enlisting. This is one of the funniest sequences, as he tries to sneak his way on to the rolls. Keaton shows a mastery of using dramatic irony to comic effect, while often also providing a tragic element. Johnny is initially unaware that he can’t enlist because his job is too vital to the Confederacy (leading to a funny bit when he tries to get around this). A misunderstanding over his failure to enlist leads to him being rejected by Annabel. Her disbelief was neatly foreshadowed when he seemed almost reluctant to go, as if it were not on his mind at all.
After the first scenes, a year passes. Annabel’s father his been wounded and she is riding the train to visit him. At the same time a squad of Union soldiers are making a bold raid to steal the train in order to quickly destroy bridges vital to the Southern side. It turns out, of course, to be Johnny’s train (the General of the title). They hop onboard just as he’s stepped off for the lunch break. As the train speeds off — with Annabel Lee on board — Johnny rushes madly after it. In another tragicomic turn of events, he soon finds he’s the only one who’s really giving chase. Nevertheless, he eventually manages to get another locomotive at the next stop (while losing the car full of Confederate troops that come to his aid).
What follows is a thrilling chase as Johnny makes his way north after his train and his woman. He manages to free Annabel, but discovers that a Union supply train is heading south to sneak across a river and provide support for a flanking attack. As he determines to both escape and stop its advance, another train chase occurs – this time with Johnny pursued by the Union and heading south. There’s an understated political point here: Johnny has to switch in and out of uniforms, neither of which are his own, as he crosses the lines in either direction. Both the theft of a train and the military goal (cutting off river crossings) echo each other. The uniform is additionally a bit of a running joke set up by a line from Annabel and capped at the film’s end.
The film is smartly and briskly edited. It has a running time of just 75 min. (although longer versions do exist) and fills it up well. While some of the action scenes lack more modern methods of showing tension (happily there is no danger of quick, shaky, confusing cuts), other parts are wonderful at showing all that’s needed in one full shot. One funny scene occurs just as Johnny is nearly catching up to the stolen General in his own train. The Union soldiers are getting water and wood when they see him, and take off leaving the water still pouring down from the tank. The camera is set up looking into Johnny’s cabin from the back and remains there for this whole sequence: He initially does not see the approaching water. Then he sticks his head out just in time to be splashed full in the face. Keaton shuffles out of the cabin into the open, holds his hand out and looks confusedly up at the sky. Then he goes back in, and again sticks his head out the window to get a view forward. Briefly he turns back — and does a double take as he realizes what it was that hit him. All done without needing to move the camera from its spot.
The most notable aspect of the action scenes from a modern perspective, is how real they all are. The movie is filled with practical stunts (many by Keaton himself). The actors are much of the time working on an actually moving train. When a cannonball fires off, it’s an actual cannon firing — and this in a scene that is both funny and tense. The most thrilling stunt, of course, is when a train goes crashing into a river on a collapsing bridge. This was done with an actual train, and it’s difficult to describe how spectacular it looks to see it really take place. Nothing to surpass this could be achieved even today (nor would it likely be attempted – wreckage from the stunt remained in the river for years afterward).
The historical details are all meticulously filled in too. This took place about 60 years after the events depicted; roughly the same distance World War II is from us. It manages, despite not really focusing on the war much, to provide something that feels authentic. The way the characters react and deal with the problems they face meshes perfectly with the period and the plot. It is perhaps the lack of dwelling on the military situation or the precise events in the story that aids this. There are no broad political statements or grandstanding on either side going on, just a story during a war.
Reasons to watch: Thrilling action-comedy. Smart attention to detail. Not just one spectacular train stunt, but many other stunts both dangerous and comedic.
Warnings: If you dislike silent films it’s not that noticeable, as there are very few titles with so much action. About the only additional knock against it might be that the acting style is so old and can look like theater, but Keaton really does a tremendous job, and the film mainly stays with him.