“The General” (1926) is a Civil War story remarkable for two interesting qualities. First, it has the intriguing look of a Mathew Brady Civil War-era photograph. Second, the story is entirely apolitical.
Mathew Brady photo: Library of Congress, (now in public domain), Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, 1863.
As far removed as we are today from the Civil War, and despite our technological proficiencies, we could not achieve either of these qualities in a Civil War film today; nor would we probably try. In the first case, producers might shrug off any attempt to replicate a Mathew Brady photo with the attitude that most younger audiences would neither recognize nor appreciate that effect. Mathew who?
In the second case, we have a self-conscious but determined tendency (as we’ve discussed on this blog before), to justify history (when we’re not over-simplifying it or dumbing it down). Buster Keaton, the film’s star, and one of its writer-directors, avoids explanation or politics by focusing on the story of one stumblebum who tries to retrieve a train engine that has been stolen.
This post is our annual commemoration of Memorial Day with a look at the Civil War through the movies. Memorial Day has its roots in the Civil War. In previous Memorial Day posts we covered “Friendly Persuasion” (1956), and picked apart the symbolism used in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). “The General” has neither message nor sweeping saga, but there is an off-beat realism to the movie that neither “Friendly Persuasion” nor GWTW has.
We might note that 1926, when “The General” was released, was closer to the end of the Civil War than we are today to the end of World War II. That may not be enough in itself to lend authenticity; “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was even closer in proximity to the Civil War, yet has more music hall melodrama about it than a Mathew Brady photo. And director D.W. Griffith’s awkward defensiveness over The Cause resulting in an infamous racist slant on the Southern justification both for the war and the Ku Klux Klan got him in such hot water that perhaps a wish to avoid controversy inspired Buster Keaton’s apolitical telling of an unlikely Confederate hero. Perhaps it only reflected Keaton’s personal lack of interest in anything more than a great gag, a meticulously executed stunt, and above all, trains.
At times the film’s apolitical nature is too obvious, such as when the war begins. Keaton is spooning with his best girl on the parlor sofa when her brother strides in, and announces, “Fort Sumter has been fired upon.” Her father, seemingly emotionless, replies, “Then the war is here.”
This makes it sound as if they are responding in dull surprise to news of a bad storm destroying crops in another county, an act of God. The Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter purposely to start the war. Some Southerners were pleased, some were anxious, some were certainly baffled and wondering what was going to happen next, but nobody shrugged it off as just one of those things.
The story, based on a true event, is about a unique Civil War train robbery, where Union raiders confiscate a Confederate train. In this movie, Keaton is the engineer of “The General”, which runs on the Western and Atlantic Rail Road in Tennessee and Georgia.
Union spies capture his train, with Keaton in pursuit (on a hand cart, on an early wooden bicycle, and running like crazy). At this point, Keaton is unaware that Marion Mack, who was in the baggage car searching for something in her trunk, was captured by the Union men, who tie her up.
At first Marion Mack is the damsel in distress. Later on in the film she gets some unexpected slapstick moments, is hoisted around in a sack, shows her comedy chops, and even runs the train. She gets pummeled with water from the water tower spout, and in a PBS documentary on Buster Keaton shown some years ago, “Buster Keaton - A Hard Act to Follow”, she acknowledged that she had no idea she was about to be half drowned in that scene.
Another laugh is when Keaton, unable to avoid getting out of a way of a cannon pointed at him, heaves a chunk of firewood at it, as if it were a dog he could chase away.
His gags are amazing for their complexity and precision. When the Union spies in “The General” chuck railroad ties at the train engine which Keaton uses to pursue them, he lies down on the cow catcher, and with a heavy railroad tie in his hands, slams it down to knock another wooden railroad tie off the track with an elementary lesson in physics. The train is still moving while he does it.
The timing of firing the railroad car cannon, first a comic dud, and then a success, was perfect, all while the trains are moving.
In the PBS documentary on Keaton’s career mentioned above, an eyewitness to the event remarked that the silent stream of steam we see billowing out of the wrecked train was not silent at all. The train’s steam whistle let off a long, continuous shrill blast that sounded ominous and frightening to the spectators. Too bad that sound was not replicated for the movie. Some, horrified, also mistook the dummy planted at the controls for a real person.
After the train wreck there is a brief battle between the blue and gray, who finally catch up to each other. These fellows were played by Oregon National Guardsmen, changing uniforms to be both the Union and Confederate soldiers.
When a Confederate soldiers falls in battle while a confused and annoyed Keaton is talking to him, and when a Union soldier dies when Keaton’s sword accidently slips out of his hand and is driven into the soldier’s back, we are shown these events as gags. Maybe that’s what some critics had trouble swallowing. Depictions of historical events, especially in this manner, are going to seem callous, like treading upon hallowed ground. But interestingly, Keaton, both director and character, is determined to take only his train and his lady love seriously. Nothing else is of much significance. Despite its Mathew Brady look, the film’s tone seems quite modern in this respect, with wry, dry humor, at times almost cynical. This is where he really departs from D. W. Griffith's sentimentality.