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.
“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).