The chase is one of the greatest thrills cinema can offer. Over a century of film has provided inventive and exciting pursuits in nearly every mode of transport. The French Connection is the epitome of road rage, Point Break’s on foot chase is a high octane pursuit through L.A.’s back garden, Speed kept tension high in the unlikeliest of vehicles and James Bond caught his bad guy in practically anything that could move. Keaton, however, was mad enough to choose trains. The General is entirely a chase without pause as Johnnie Gray races in to and out of enemy lines to recapture his beloved, eponymous locomotive.
Keaton seized the possibilities for gags and thrills after learning of an incredible true event which occurred in the heart of the Civil War. To any unfamiliar with The General, it may be difficult to picture exactly how exciting a chase film could be when the vehicles are on a defined path. But, if there is one thing Keaton demonstrates across his work from The Navigator to Sherlock Jr and Seven Chances, it is that if there is a difficult way to do something, Keaton will find it.
Like all great Keaton comedies, this is a ride full of action and spectacle. On his journey into the advancing Unionist territory, Gray very nearly blows himself up by cannon, accidentally abandons his confederate back up, and precariously rides on the front of The General’s cattle shield in an infamous image. In an age where stunts were actually performed, it is sometimes uncomfortable to laugh in the middle of a gasp. Climbing across the front of a moving train to dislodge obstacles is one trick in many death defying acts. Though if one thing is certain, if Keaton ever fails to generate a laugh or gasp, he certainly generates silent marvel in his graceful buffoonery.
The Auteur once said ‘My little fellow was a working man, and honest’ and perhaps Johnnie Gray is the greatest embodiment of this. He is so earnest and dedicated in his attempts, he becomes utterly absorbed and unaware of the grand danger he frequently places himself in. Gray is so eager to please his love Annabelle Lee, he blindly attempts to enlist. When this fails, he is oblivious to the train pistons bobbing him up and down as it steams away because he is engrossed in thought. In fact, the entire film works around thus principle. Gray is so fixated on recapturing his train, he does not stop to consider how exactly he will take it back from a gang of armed soldiers.
Perhaps this is why Keaton’s work is so accessible even now. The General features a character constantly trying to do his best. He is dedicated to an aim and miraculously quick witted, even if he is too slow to realise it. The failures and triumphs are immaterial, it is the dedicated pursuit and the wondrous style used to tackled obstacles which connects the delight of succeeding generations.
Keaton devises a perfect send off to the death defying tricks as The General explodes into a glorious third act. The Union soldiers speed along a bridge above a river for a few moments before it collapses beneath them and sends train and soldiers careening into the water. It remains the single most expensive shot in silent film history and the shock on the faces of extras unaware of the stunt is priceless. The plummet sets off the climatic confrontation and ends Keaton’s picture with a bang.
Singing the praises of a cinematic classic like The General is an endeavour which could span thousands of words. Keaton succinctly summarises it in only fourteen –
‘Railroads are a great prop. You can do some awful wild things with railroads’.
Annabelle Lee accidentally sets the train in motion. Already curving down the mountain and gaining momentum, Keaton decides to take a short cut and barrels down a precipice. Just as he reaches The General, Annabelle has set the train in reverse. The Union officers on their tail power ahead, the two on a collision course, seconds from impact. Then – the Union officers pass on a switch by a hair. A single moment in a wealth of cinematic gems, no wonder this was Keaton’s favourite of all his pictures.