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A 1927 movie directed by Clyde Bruckman.

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How to Win a War Single-Handed

  • Sep 2, 2007
Pros: Keaton and the train

Cons: Glorification of the Confederacy (PC thugs need only apply for this one)

The Bottom Line: Ten bucks on the Washington Generals

International action superstar Jackie Chan stated in his autobiography that the first action heroes in movies were really the giants of the silent film era. This may not mean much to an intellectual such as yourself, as it's coming from a guy who once flew around a city dangling from a rope ladder, jumped onto a hot air balloon, and jumped off a building. A guy willing to do all of those things in the name of entertainment isn't exactly going to be a successor to Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln. But in the same book, Chan also says he's sometimes smarter than he looks. And his assessment of those great silent comedy stars was right on the money.

Take Buster Keaton in his classic movie The General, consistently ranked as one of the greatest movies ever made. In The General, Keaton performs numerous stunts with the help of an actual train. What Keaton didn't have was a team of medics who could rivive him should anything happen, or any safety gear, or any bluescreen technology to perform stunts that are just too dangerous to perform in real life. The risk is real, and Keaton could have been seriously hurt performing many of his own stunts.

In The General, Keaton stars as a young railroad conductor named Johnny. Johnny in in love with a girl named Annabelle at the outbreak of the Civil War. To earn his badge of courage, Johnny has to go enlist with the Confederate Army. At the recruitment center, the recruiters decide Johnny's current position is more helpful to the Confederacy's cause than being a soldier. Unfortunately, they overlook the idea of actually telling him that. So Johnny, dejected, goes to tell Annabelle the Confederacy won't take him. But due to a misunderstanding by some of her reletives, she is told he never showed in the first place. Annabelle gives Johnny the boot.

Johnny works on the railroad all the live long day for the next year before some Yankees steal his train. In one hell of an act of bravery, Johnny goes out to take his train back. In the process, he damn near wins the Civil War!

The great thing about silent comedies is that they seem almost cartoonish. But since they're not actually cartoons, the humor in them never appears dated. With actual cartoons, you have to keep thinking up original sight gags and ideas to stay fresh. With actual people, you can watch and laugh your head off because so much of the material just doesn't date. You know that real people just shouldn't be capable of doing outrageous stunts like the ones in The General, and so you love them and appreciate them even more. It's easy for people to watch The General and laugh their heads off while wondering just how big Buster Keaton's balls were.

Many of the stunt sequences pale in comparison to what Jackie Chan is capable of. But you have to remember Buster Keaton didn't have the benefit of a rigorous martial arts training regimen either. What Keaton pulls off with a vaudville background is phenomenal. Keaton is extraordinary in sequences where he has to clear off the tracks in front of his train.

The train is Keaton's real co-star. The movie revolves around the train, so that's only natural. There are many comedy sight gags set around the train, and most of them are very creative. There's a hilarious scene with a cannon, several sequences involving train sabotage, and a great scene where a bridge blows up and a train falls into a river.

It should be noted that people's attitudes toward the Confederacy weren't as politically correct back then as they are now. Keaton is notably being the good guy in The General, and he's working for the Confederacy. I was perfectly alright with this, but there are people who may be a little testy about the Confederacy being displayed in such a positive light. Just remember Intolerance and Gone with the Wind, both classics, are guilty of this same thing.

The General is a great lesson in how to make an epic, perform your own stunts, and have everyone out of the theater in less than two hours. You'll wish more filmmakers would take heed of its existance.


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More The General (1927 movie) reviews
review by . June 28, 2011
Three very funny classics
It is fun watching classic films. They are so different than modern ones. This is a set of three digitally mastered movies: The General, from 1926, lasts 75 minutes; The Playhouse, from 1921, is 23 minutes; and Cops, from 1922, is 18 minutes. Buster Keaton stars in all three. He was one of two writers and directors of each. They are in black and white, no talking. The films are clear. They are funny.      The General is the name of a train and Keaton is its engineer. It is 1861 …
review by . June 13, 2011
You can't claim to know American movies unless you know Buster Keaton
I had two choices watching this or laugh out loud. When I wasn't smiling I was laughing. Buster Keaton's The General is a perfect introduction for those who may shy away from silent movies or who may think silent comics are too exaggerated and mannered. The story line is simple, but what Keaton does with it is genius.       Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) is an engineer for the Western and Atlantic Railroad. He has two loves, his engine, the General, and …
review by . January 31, 2003
posted in Movie Hype
The debate concerning who was the better comedian; Keaton or Chaplin, will always go on. However, I would say Keaton was because Keaton was the better overall actor of the two. Chaplin was funny because he tried to be funny, but Keaton was funny because he never really looked like he was trying to be funny. No where is this more apparent than in THE GENERAL. It is one of, if not the, best Keaton movies ever made. Not much needs to be said about the plot because that's talked to death elsewhere. …
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Nicholas Croston ()
Ranked #26
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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[Below Synopsis may contain SPOILERS!]

The film opens in 1861. Johnny Gray, an engineer for the Western and Atlanta Railroad, has entered Marietta, Georgia. He is greeted by two young men who follow him to his girlfriend's home. The girl's brother announces the attack on Fort Sumter, indicating the start of the Civil War. He states that he will join the Confederate Army. The girl encourages Johnny to join the army. He attempts to, but is rejected because he is more valuable as an engineer with the railroad. The girl, believing Johnny was a coward because he did not join the army, rejects him.

A year later, a Union plot unfolds to hijack Keaton's train and use it to destroy confederate rail lines and break supply lines. Keaton spends much of the film attempting to foil the plot and keep the girl out of harm's way. At one point, he finds himself in Union headquarters, underneath the table and listening to Union strategy. He uses this knowledge to foil union plans.

The film closes with Johnny lighting a bridge on fire, which leads to a spectacular crash by the train run by the union officers. A battle follows. Through a series of errors, Johnny ends up defeating the union forces and returns a hero. As the film closes, he is commissioned a lieutenant in the Confederate Army for his bravery. The girl takes him back, and they kiss as Johnny salutes dozens of enlisted men. Fade to black.
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Director: Buster Keaton
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Release Date: February 5, 1927
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Screen Writer: Buster Keaton, Charles Smith
DVD Release Date: Kino on Video (October 26, 1999)
Runtime: 1hr 19min
First to Review

"The Keaton Classic."
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