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Film / The General

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There were two loves in his life. His engine, and - (Annabelle Lee)
— A text card explaining Johnnie's main loves.

The General is a 1926 silent film starring Buster Keaton and co-directed by Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. Commonly considered to be one of Keaton's masterpieces.

Johnnie Gray, a train engineer, has two loves in his life: his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee, and his locomotive, the General. When the Civil War breaks out, Johnnie attempts to enlist into the Confederate Army, but is refused because he is more valuable as an engineer. Johnnie isn't told this, so Annabelle and her family believe him to be a coward. Annabelle refuses to talk to Johnnie again until he is in uniform. When Johnnie's train is stolen by Union soldiers whilst the passengers are having dinner (except for Annabelle, who had reboarded on the train), Johnnie jumps into another engine and chases the enemy. His goal is to get both his girl and his train back. Hilarity Ensues.

This film is less of an outright comedy than many of Keaton's other works and has several dramatic elements. At the time it was considered a flop, but ended up being Vindicated by History and is now considered one of the best silent films ever made.

Loosely based off an actual historical event, which also inspired the 1956 Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase, which is the story told from the point of view of the Union saboteurs.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Hero: All Johnnie wants is his locomotive and his girlfriend back. That he managed to stop a flanking action by the Union Army is just a (pretty beneficial) side-effect. At the climax, he accidentally points a cannon that is about to go off in the direction of the river's dam, and the subsequent impact flash-floods the river, halting the Union advance dead in its tracks. In addition, a sniper was shooting the soldiers handling the cannons with Johnnie keeping his seemingly incoherent command shouting after noticing. After a while, he pointed to a certain direction with the same hand he was holding his sword. The sword, already shown to be in a poor condition multiple times, dislodged from its handle with the blade flying and killing the sniper.
  • Artistic License – History: The events of this film play out more or less the same as the real thing did. However, one crucial detail involves the fate of The Texas. In the movie, it falls into a river when it crosses a burning bridge. In reality, it survived the Civil War and managed to find itself preserved at the Atlanta History Center.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • A fair amount of emphasis is placed on Johnnie trying to get the cannon working, making it look like something impressive is going to happen...only for it to rather anticlimactically fire a ball a short distance to where he is. Subverted when he throws it off the train and it procedes to actually explode, revealing it to be actually dangerous.
    • The final moments of the film (and lines) are a Confederate general ordering Johnnie to take off the soldier's uniform he's been wearing (because he helped in the climactic battle)... so he can put on an officer's uniform.
  • Bears Are Bad News: At one point, Johnnie and Annabelle are lost in the middle of the night in a forest they don't know while a storm rages. And then they bump into a bear.
  • Bear Trap: Annabelle and Johnnie walk into one immediately after escaping the bear and it takes several minutes to free themselves.
  • Behind the Black: An unusual example. Johnnie remains totally oblivious to things going on just behind his back—his train pulling away without him, an entire Confederate regiment retreating. Why can't he hear these presumably noisy events? Presumably because it's a silent movie, and the audience can't hear them either.
  • BFG: The Texas is pulling a flatcar carrying a mortar similar to this type.
  • Bound and Gagged: Annabelle gets discovered by the union soldiers when they are stealing the train, and gets overpowered, tied up and gagged.
  • Black Comedy: During the battle at Red River, Johnnie's attempts at handling a cannon sees the two soldier he's talking to getting killed by a sniper, followed by him killing the sniper by accident due to his broken sword.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Once he's on the run, Johnnie subjects his enemies to the same troubles he endured in the first half of the film.
    • Right before escaping with the General, Johnnie knocks out a Union soldier who he forgets to throw off. The soldier can be seen throughout the latter half of the film but never wakes up the closing moments of the film when everything's wrapped up, leading to a rather awkward interaction between him and Johnnie.
  • Butt-Monkey: Another engine, called the Columbia, appears as a USMRR train during the second chase. Not only does it frequently rear-end the Texas, but the rear of its train gets derailed by cannon fire. Also, the Union generals who ride on its flatcar get drenched from the water tower and jolted around as the train stops and starts.
  • Chekhov's Gag: Johnnie gets a sword for himself when he takes part in the final battle, but every time he swings it the blade flies off the hilt. He eventually loses it for good when it impales a hidden sniper by accident.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: After getting his girl back — no, we're not going to put that in a spoiler tag — and desperately trying to get up enough steam to get away from the pursuing Union forces, Johnnie asks said girl to hand him wood for the firebox while he drives the locomotive. She then sorts through all the wood that she can reach, throwing away a couple of pieces (apparently because they have knots in them) and finally hands him a piece about the size of a paperback book. While, we must repeat, they are trying to outrun their enemies at all costs. Johnnie's reaction is probably the funniest gag in the whole movie.
  • Cool Train: The General and the Texas.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Johnnie is not the most masculine guy, rather awkward socially and even a bit clumsy but when it comes to trains and sabotage he is far more knowledgeable, athletic and intelligent than anyone gives him credit for. Alone he manages to convince the enemy he is a One-Man Army and on the return chase his understanding of the turnstiles manages to completely stop the enemy in their tracks to give him enough time to warn the Confederate Army.
  • Cut Phone Lines: The Union spies who steal Johnnie's engine cut the telegraph lines on their way out. Then Johnny does it to a Union telegraph line on his way back.
  • Darker and Edgier: Very mildly so. While previous Buster Keaton films were just uproarious slapstick fests, this is more an action-adventure story with a comedy focus. Even the jokes tend to lean towards the subtler, with a few dipping into Black Comedy.
  • The Determinator: Johnnie Gray won't let anything stop him when it comes to getting his train and Annabelle back, or getting back to friendly lines with them.
  • The Ditz: Annabelle is not very bright. Partially justified in that she is apparently a "proper" southern belle and so would realistically know next to nothing about operating a railroad locomotive; she does manage to stall the Union engines during their chase by tying some trackside saplings together, causing them to be drawn into the Texas's wheels as it passes by. Afterwards, however, she also decides that a locomotive chase would be a perfect time to grab a broom and sweep the floor.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Johnnie does this to discreetly retrieve both Annabelle and his engine from the Union forces. He then forgets to take off the disguise until a bystander on his side takes a shot at him.
  • During the War: The American Civil War, to be exact.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes a lot of effort, but Johnnie gets back to the South with the General and Annabelle (winning back her heart in the process), avert a potentially devastating attack from the Union, and gets rewarded by the Confederates as well.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: The Union are doing nothing but trying to slow down and impede Johnnie's train because they think, not unreasonably, that it's carrying an entire squad of Confederate soldiers who they have no chance of outfighting. Unsurprisingly, when they see it's just him, they just ignore him.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: Johnny ends up hiding under a table the Union generals sit around while discussing the coming campaign, and not only hears their plans but sees Annabelle through a convenient hole in the tablecloth.
  • Exact Words: The next time Annabelle speaks to Johnny after their parting at the outbreak of the war, he is in uniform. A Union uniform he stole from a sentry to rescue her. The final lines of the film are a Confederate general ordering Johnnie to "take off that uniform" that he wore for the climactic battle and Johnnie starting to do so with shame... only for the general to hand him another one, for an officer, and saying "and put on this one!"
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The main story from the General's hijacking through to Johnnie being made a lieutenant is set over the course of just a single day.
  • Handcar Pursuit: One way that Johnny pursues the train. It derails fairly early on due to a sabotaged track.
  • Hand Gagging: Annabelle is being silenced this way twice, first by the leader of the Union squad and later by Johnnie when he rescues her from the enemy's headquarters.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: At one point Keaton steals a penny-farthing bicycle to chase after his stolen train, but isn't able to ride it very far before falling over.
  • Heroic BSoD: The Union general after the bridge collapses.
  • Inspired by…: The "Great Locomotive Chase" of 1862, in which a squad of Union operatives snuck behind Confederate lines and stole a locomotive just as they do in this movie. The real raid was almost as much of a fiasco as the one in this movie is.note 
  • The Load: Zig-zagged with Annabelle, where she makes some stupid mistakes that make Johnnie's job more difficult (reversing the train when Johnnie was about to catch up, as well as tossing out wood fuel because of a knot) but she is trying to be helpful and on a few occasions manages to even surprise him with her ideas working (the trip line between two trees that Johnnie mocked managed to entangle the cranks of the enemy train and forces them to stop in order to clear it out).
  • Meaningful Name
    • "Johnnie Gray" is a combination of nicknames for Confederate soldiers — Johnny Reb and Grayback.
    • Annabelle Lee is obviously a reference to the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Johnnie sneaks into a Union headquarters by knocking out a sentry and stealing his uniform.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: After convincing Annabelle to get into a sack so he can sneak her onto a train, Johnnie loses a shoe. In the middle of a pile of shoes that he'd just poured out of that sack.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Why doesn't anyone just tell Johnnie that he is performing vital wartime work as a railroad engineer?
  • Rule of Symbolism: Johnnie having to hack apart wood to continue his pursuit of the Union is interwoven with the Confederate fleeing from them at the exact same time — showing him as all the more brave and courageous in comparison to the army he is supposedly beneath.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: One of Annabelle's faults, such as when she was feeding undersized logs into the engine's boiler. Johnny sarcastically gives an even small piece of wood for her to put and she does so, completely oblivious of the annoyed sarcasm Johnnie intended behind the gesture.
  • See No Evil, Hear No Evil: Johnnie does not hear an entire Union regiment passing behind him while his back is turned.
  • Self-Plagiarism: Keaton recycled the gag of trying to escape a cannon with his foot chained from The Navigator.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Johnnie and Annabelle's first kiss came after he nearly strangled her for making his job harder.
  • The So-Called Coward: Johnnie seems to be a generally hapless and mild-mannered fellow and Annabelle dumps him for perceived cowardice when he doesn't get into the army. Nonetheless, he immediately leaps into action when Yankees steal his train and kidnap his girl, braving fire, storms, and bears to get them back.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: After he rescues her from the Union barracks, Annabelle comments on how sweet and heroic it was for him to brave all that danger just for her. He accepts the compliment, electing not to tell her that he wasn't even aware she was kidnapped until that night and was just after his train.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: When Johnnie notices that he accidentally uncoupled the flatcar from the Texas... and the cannon is now pointing straight at him... he rushes to get to the front of the engine, huddling on the cow-catcher. Fortunately the engine reaches a curve just as the cannon goes off, and so the cannonball hits the vicinity of the General (and the union spies) instead.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: How Johnnie Gray kills the Union sniper at the end. Granted, he did it completely by accident...
  • Trash the Set: Yes, they did burn down the bridge as the Texas was crossing it, and destroy a real locomotive engine. (This was largely responsible for making The General the most expensive movie ever made at the time.) The wreckage sat there until the need for scrap metal led to it being salvaged and recycled during the Second World War.
  • Vehicle Title: The film is named for Johnnie's engine.