Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The General


DIRECTED by Clyde Bruckman
PRODUCED by Buster Keaton & Joseph M Schenck
WRITTEN by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, & Buster Keaton
BASED on The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Robert Israel
CINEMATOGRAPHY by Bert Haines & Dev Jennings
ART DIRECTION by Fred Gabourie

So with the very first film I almost violate one of my rules. The one element of The General that I don’t like is something that was very much a part of its time, which is the predilection of making the South the sentimental favorite in dramas, and also maybe because of the American tendency to root for the underdog. Many Americans still thought of the Johnny Rebs as honorable gentlemen, spoke of the “Lost Cause,” and forgot about or just didn’t care about the rotten, festering heart of the Confederacy. Just about everybody did it, from the horrible masterpiece The Birth of a Nation to the tacitly racist Gone With the Wind. Happily, that trend is just about gone. Cold Mountain shows the war from the Southern point of view, but Inman is deserting, and we are encouraged to root for him.
Buster Keaton’s first feature-length movie was The Three Ages, in 1923. You really can’t compare two- and three-reelers against what we’ve come to think of as features (Cops was 18 minutes, which would make it a short today), though half a dozen of Keaton’s and even more of Chaplin’s shorts are masterpieces. When Keaton really got rolling at full-length (and before sound killed his career), I think he made more great movies even than Chaplin. I’m thinking of amazing stuff like Our Hospitality, The Navigator, College, Steamboat Bill, and The Cameraman.
But The General is the best. I remember laughing until I hurt during the chase, as he comes up with one ruse after another to steal his beloved locomotive and girl back from the Yankees. Keaton was the master of the visual joke, and he did it all without ever changing expression. Chaplin had 100 faces to wring our hearts with; Keaton had to make one face work for everything … and he did!
And I can still recall the awe with which I watched the bridge collapsing under the train engine (a scene that was filmed in Oregon). I honestly don’t think there was a single shot to compare to it until 1956: the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. And Keaton didn’t use any special effects.