The General (1926)

Train driver Buster Keaton gives chase when Union agents steal his locomotive in this classic silent comedy set at the time of the American Civil War.

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Introduction

“Abounding in gags whose ease and symmetry belie the elaboration of their staging, The General is the most perfectly proportioned and sustained of all silent comedies.”
David Robinson, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, 1980

Taking inspiration from a real Civil War incident when Union soldiers hijacked a Confederate train, The General was silent comedian Buster Keaton’s most grandly conceived project. The train driver who goes in dogged pursuit of his beloved engine is a classic Keaton character: stoical, determined and preternaturally straight-faced as chaos reigns around him.

The film is a seamless blend of action and comedy, involving a great number of stunts – including the famous sequence in which a bridge bearing a railroad train collapses into a gorge. The great expense that such moments incurred was remembered when the film was a commercial disaster, to the cost of Keaton’s future creative freedoms. Only decades later was The General recognised as one of silent cinema’s greatest comedies.

Keaton drew on another 19th-century incident, the notorious Hatfield-McCoy family feud of 1878–91, for his earlier masterpiece, Our Hospitality (1923).

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