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Film / The General

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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 Buster 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.

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.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The final moments of the film (and lines) are a Confederate general ordering Johnnie to take off the uniform he's been wearing (because he helped in the climactic battle)... so he can put on another uniform reflecting a higher rank.
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  • 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: The Union spies tie Annabelle up and gag her when they steal the train and find her in the baggage car.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, reflecting a higher rank, and saying "and put on this one!"
  • Handcar Pursuit: One way that Johnny pursues the train.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.


Example of: