The General (1926)
Directed by Buster Keaton 

Who’s in it? Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

What’s it about? A lukewarm reception for The General upon its release in 1926 meant independent actor/director and silent era icon Buster Keaton was strongarmed into a contract at MGM due to a poor return on the film’s US$750,000 budget (a colossal amount back then). Nevertheless the film undoubtedly fed a legacy that would eventually earn him an honourary Oscar. In one of the greatest u-turns in popular American film criticism Keaton’s The General is now rightly acknowledged as a marvel of modern ingenuity, one of the greatest films of all time and a sheer delight from start to finish. Keaton himself stars as engineer Johnnie Gray, who must rescue his beloved locomotive ‘The General’ from a band of run away Union soldiers. If you watch one silent film in your life make sure it’s this one: total cinema at its very purest.

Memorable Moments? In one scene Keaton absent-mindedly sits down for a rest on one of the locomotive’s monstrous coupling rods – which hold the giant wheels together – just as the train moves forward lifting him clean off the ground and back down as if nothing had happened. Genius!

Look who’s talking: ‘Spectacular chases, fires and explosions are captured with fluid camerawork. There are no stunt doubles for Keaton and of course no digital effects.’ – The Guardian

Like that? Try this: Buster Keaton fans should look no further than Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), worth seeing for Keaton’s famous stunt involving the gable wall of a house and an open window, which really has to be seen to be believed!

Trivia Pursuit: Following the famous locomotive-off-the-bridge stunt (the biggest and most expensive stunt ever at the time, using an actual locomotive and an actual bridge), the train wreck was left lying in the river where it fell for over twenty years until WWII when it was reclaimed for scrap metal.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...