27 May 2006 | theowinthrop
The Greatest War Comedy ?
It is "generally" (or should I pun and say "General Lee"?) said that the best comedy of the silent film career of Buster Keaton's career was his Civil War epic THE GENERAL. Apparently planned with more care than any of his other film projects, it involved not only researching a period of history some sixty years in the past, but getting the correct rolling stock, costumes, weapons, and props to make it look correct. And it worked so well that Keaton never really could (despite some great moments in STEAMBOAT BILL JR.) out-do it. In fact, the closest thing to his best sound film (or film that he influenced that was a sound film) was his work with Red Skelton in the comedy A SOUTHERN YANKEE, where he returned to a Civil War theme.
THE GENERAL (as I mentioned in discussing the Disney film THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE) is based on the "Andrews Raiders" stealing of the Confederate locomotive "The General", and an attached train, which was used to damage tracks and bridges. The raid (in February 1862) was from northern Georgia into Tennesee. It only lasted 20 miles, as the coal for the train was used up and not replaced. Andrews and several raiders were hanged after a trial. Others went to southern prisoner of war camps. The effect of the incident far outstripped it's military success. The damage (after all) could be repaired. But like Jimmy Doolittle's Raid over Tokyo in April 1942, it had a tremendous effect hurting Confederate morale. The area attacked was hundreds of miles from the battlefronts of Virginia or Kentucky/Northern Tennessee that were in the current events of the War at the time, and so was considered safe by the Confederate government and public. Instead it had been shown quite easy for Northern raiders to hit and run for awhile.
Despite it being a brief incident of the war, the locomotive chase would remain famous after more important events were forgotten. The actual locomotive is still in existence in a museum in the south. When Lesney did it famous series of "Models of Yesteryear" the first locomotive that was included in that series of collectible toys was "The General".
The story, however, was ultimately a downer. But Keaton took the basic tale and made it a comedy of the period. First he changes the viewer's perspective - it is not concentrating on Andrews and his men, but on the Confederates. Secondly, he builds up the story of Johnny Gray, a railroad engineer who tries to enlist but is rejected (the twist of logic failure in the script is that the Confederate draft board head does not bother to explain to Johnny that he is more useful as an engineer to the cause than as a soldier). Because Keaton's family and girl friend (Marion Mack) see he is not enlisted, they believe he turned coward.
Johnny eventually is the only person who tries to retake "the General" from the raiders, and the film has actually two chases in it - first Andrews and his men stealing the train, and then Keaton sneaking into Northern lines with Mack and retaking it.
Along the way are many comic classic moments, such as Keaton carefully standing on the cowcatcher and carefully using physics to knock off broken wooden ties that might derail the train, or when (at a moment of dejection) Keaton sits on the connecting rod that links the trains wheels and finds himself pulled into the locomotive barn while in a sitting positions. The situation of fighting the Yankees during the second chase, and finding Marion Mack there "helping" him, are wonderful - especially when she judges which lumps of coal are pretty enough to be used to keep the engine fired (she throws away the ugly little ones). Keaton's reaction to her stupidity is a wonderful moment.
The classic conclusion of the comedy is the battle of the two sides at the river, and the burning of the railroad bridge (with it's destruction of a second locomotive). It has been called the most expensive sight gag in history. By the way, the Northern General who ordered the locomotive across the bridge is of some special interest. He was Mike "Turkey Strut" Donlin, a frequent member (and starring player) of the old New York Giants under John McGraw and Christy Matthewson in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Donlin (who got his funny nickname from the way he ran the bases) left baseball to become a film actor (he had worked a bit in vaudeville). Keaton was a sports fan (and showed this in his film COLLEGE, where he shows his abilities in several sports) and hired Donlin. This was the latter's most famous performance - look at his reaction to the collapse.
It must be regarded as Keaton's finest film, and certainly the best war comedy to come out in the silent period. It may also be the best war comedy to come out of any period of motion pictures.