Film Review: The General (1926)

Also known as: The Engine Driver (original script title)
Release Date: December 25th, 1926 (El Paso premiere)
Directed by: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Written by: Al Boasberg, Clyde Buckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith
Based on: The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
Music by: William P. Perry (1926), Carl Davis (1987), Robert Israel (1995), Baudime Jam (1999), Joe Hisaishi (2004), Timothy Brock (2005), Angelin Fonda (2017)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

Buster Keaton Productions, Joseph M. Schenck Productions, United Artists, 67 Minutes, 80 Minutes (1982 cut), 83 Minutes (1962 cut), 75 Minutes (2003 alternate cut)

Review:

“[to the recruiter who rejects him] If you lose this war, don’t blame me.” – Johnnie Gray

While I’ve reviewed several Charlie Chaplin films, as well as a few Harold Lloyd ones, I’m surprised that I haven’t reviewed any Buster Keaton pictures yet. Granted, I haven’t watched any in awhile but I’ve been itching to revisit The General, as I hadn’t seen it since my film studies class in high school, over two decades ago.

What I like about Keaton’s movies, especially this one, is the high emphasis on plot. He is a physical, slapstick comedian and he employs the style in his performances but he still makes a well plotted film that doesn’t mostly rely on his gags and his stunts.

The General is a great example of this and it is a true cinematic classic of its time.

What really stands out, at least to me, is the scope of the film. It feels large and epic when compared to other motion pictures that are similar. Silent comedies were typically filmed indoors and outside sets usually didn’t have a lot of scale. The General takes advantage of the environments it’s filmed in, especially during the iconic locomotive chase scenes.

Additionally, it has amazing cinematography with stellar shot framing, lighting and use of natural environmental texture, weather and color tinting.

It has a well structured, layered plot, which moves briskly and doesn’t get too hung up on staying in one place for too long or overdoing a gag.

I also really like the plot. It sees Keaton’s Johnnie Gray, a locomotive operator, get rejected by the love of his life because he won’t join the military and fight in the Civil War. As time goes on, she is taken hostage by Union raiders who steal his train. Propelled by the undying love in his heart for his woman and his train, Johnnie takes to the rails to hunt down the enemy and get his loves back.

The story then expands into different directions but it stays pretty focused on moving forward and it employs a level of character development that wasn’t common in 1920s pictures.

Keaton and Chaplin are often times compared and you have people that are either in one camp or the other. Despite similarities in their physical comedy, I think that their films are very different. I think that The General showcases their differences pretty well.

Also, unlike Chaplin’s films from the ’20s, this feels like a true blockbuster movie of its age.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other Buster Keaton films.

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