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America during the Civil War: Johnny (Buster Keaton) is a railroad
engineer in love with Annabel (Marion Mack) and even more so his
locomotive, the General. He couldn't care less about the war, but when it
reaches his stretch of land and his girlfriend demands him to join the
army, he is the first in line to enlist - but is rejected because his
services as an engineer are more valuable to the Confederate Army than him
being a foot soldier - yet everybody thinks Johnny didn't enlist out of
cowardice, and Annabel even breaks up with him over it.
A group of
conspirators from the North figure it would be a good idea to steal
Johnny's beloved engine, the General, to mess up the Confederates' supply
routes, and when they do so, they rather by accident take Annabel hostage.
Johnny doesn't know that Annabel has been kidnapped, but he desperately
wants to get his engine back, even if that means going after it on another
engine on his own (he has somehow lost the troops he wanted to take with
him). Being so caught up in chasing after his beloved General, Johnny
doesn't even notice that he has crossed the enemy lines until it's much too late,
and ultimately he has to abandon the locomotive he has been on - but
somehow makes it to the train-nappers' headquatrters rather by accident,
where he manages to free Annabel, take possession of the General and
driive it back to the South, pursued not by one but by two trains full of
Northern soldiers and supplies. But after many a complication and
near-escape, Bustetr manages to burn down a vital bridge and have one of
the Union's trains plummet into the water below, and warn the nearest
Confederate outpost just in time before the Northerners' attack. And even
in the battle, Johnny, without even intending it, turns the fortunes to
the South's favour, so much so that in the end he not only gets the girl
but is also promoted to Lieutnant.
Though a box office failure
at its release, The General is nothing short of a masterpiece and
is nowadays regarded as Keaton's signature film and best ever, and
as one of the seminal chase films as well - and totally rightly so, as the
film is little more than one big chase sequence that works just like a
clockwork, where every shot, every stunt, every gag is exactly where it's
supposed to be, and in which Keaton (once again) proves his genius as not
only a slapstick comic and master stuntman (though he's in many a
breathtaking sequence in this one) but also as director with an intimate
understanding of the medium, which makes the film a s fresh and exciting
today as it was more than 80 years ago - and the fact that no film tricks
or miniatures were used during all of the action sequences only adds to
the film's freshness.
By the way: From today's
point of view, Buster's portrayal of a Confederate hero might seem
politically incorrect, but a) sensibilities were a bit different in the
1920's, and b) just like his hero in the film, Buster wasn't a political
filmmaker who wanted to bring across some message but someone who wanted
to tella story and entertain his audience (which this film perfectly
does). And c) this film was based on true events (at least to an extent)
which dictated who's a northerner and who's a Southerner ...