Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The General (1927)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The General (1927)

In actor / director Buster Keaton's visually-stunning, silent action-comedy classic masterpiece set during the Civil War; it has been considered to be Buster Keaton's greatest film, and also widely recognized as one of the true masterpieces of American cinema; it is undoubtedly one of the greatest comedies ever made, with non-stop physical comedy and sight gags, shot almost entirely aboard moving trains; filmed against a backdrop of magnificently photographed Civil War battle scenes, it also contained one of the great chase sequences in movie history; the acrobatic stuntwork, Keaton's deadpan expressions, location photography and sight gags remain remarkable to the present day.

Keaton created this great comedy out of an authentic episode of American history during the Civil War - a story about a famous locomotive, though in the real-life historical version, the locomotive was stolen by the Confederates, not the Northern forces:

  • in one of the earliest scenes, Southern Confederate locomotive engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) worked and lived in the city of Marietta, GA; Confederate engineer Johnnie had "two loves in his life" - his beloved locomotive named The General, part of the Western and Atlantic railroad (W & A R R), and his Southern belle sweetheart Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack)
  • when the Civil War (War Between the States) broke out in the spring of 1861 with the firing on Ft. Sumter (SC), Johnnie was visiting at the home of his lady-love fiancee Annabelle; her father (Charles Smith) and brother (Frank Barnes) both left to enlist, and Annabelle asked Johnnie: "Aren't you going to enlist?"; Johnnie rushed to the recruiting office to sign up to fight on the side of the South; he failed to hear why he was denied: ("Don't enlist him. He is more valuable to the South as an engineer") - and he was utterly disappointed when told: "We can't use you"; he couldn't understand the reason for his rejection (was it his short stature or lack of strength?), and made two further attempts to get in line and enlist, but was thrown out; he denounced the recruitment officer: "If you lose this war, don't blame me"
  • back at Annabelle's house, when she asked her family members about Johnnie's enlistment, they told her: "He didn't even get in line. He's a disgrace to the South"; when she asked Johnnie the same question ("Why didn't you enlist?"), he sheepishly answered: "They wouldn't take me"; she thought he was lying or that he was being an unpatriotic coward; ashamed of him, she snubbed him: "Please don't lie - I don't want you to speak to me again until you are in uniform"; dejected, he sat back down on the engine's drive-shaft as it alternately moved up and down and entered the engine-house enclosure (train-shed) - a perfect image for the complex emotional feelings he was experiencing

Johnnie's Failed Attempt to Enlist in the Confederate Army

Snubbed by Sweetheart Annabelle

The Dejected Johnnie on the Train's Moving Up-and-Down Side-Rail
  • about a year later in Chattanooga, TN, Gen. Thatcher (Jim Farley) devised a plan to steal a Southern train and use it to burn bridges and cut off supply lines as it traveled northward; Northern-Union spies led by Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) were to carry out the plan; the spies stole Johnnie's The General behind Southern lines at Big Shanty (the first station north of Marietta, GA) during a dinner stop - but they also inadvertently kidnapped Annabelle who was traveling northward to see her wounded father; she was in the baggage car of a train at the time retrieving something from her trunk, and they were forced to tie her up and gag her
  • the spies then proceeded with the train (unhooked from all the passenger cars) from Georgia into Tennessee and toward the North; the intrepid Confederate Johnnie heroically risked his life to rescue both; he at first tried to chase after the train on foot, but had to give up; then he used various other means to acquire his beloved train, while maintaining deadpan expressions on his face; in perfectly timed and staged pursuit scenes - Johnnie also chased after his train on a pump hand-car (before he struck sabotaged rail-track and the hand-car tumbled down an embankment into a river), and briefly rode on a Velocipede (boneshaker) bicycle he stole from a house near the town of Kingston; the spies prevented communications by cutting telegraph lines along their route
Johnnie's Pursuit of Stolen Southern Train into the North (Held by Union Forces)

On Foot

On a Pump Hand-Car

On a Bicycle
  • in Kingston itself, Johnnie alerted the Confederate Army forces at the station, and then masterfully hijacked another locomotive, The Texas, to pursue both his train and his adored but estranged girlfriend Annabelle; after entering Union territory, he realized that he had disattached the troops assembled onto a flatcar behind him, and he was all alone - single-handedly taking on the entire Union army in order to rescue both of his loves
  • each half of the film was predominantly composed of two spectacular, ground-breaking train chase sequences over the same territory; each scene in the chase of the first half had a counterpart in the film's second half; there was incredible acrobatic stuntwork as Southern locomotive engineer Johnnie Gray pursued his own hijacked train engine
  • as the Yankees stopped for wood-fuel and water, Johnnie noticed a mortar car (with a stumpy, snub-nosed, unwieldly howitzer cannon) on a siding, and attached it to the back of his train; he ineptly attempted to load powder and cannon-balls into the barrel of the cannon to fire - but mostly endangered his own life, especially when he accidentally disattached the mortar car (with a loaded cannon and lighted fuse) and the barrel was pointed directly at him in the engine cab; he lucked out when a curve in the tracks directed the barrel to target the train carrying the fleeing Union spies ahead of him
  • the Union forces also attempted to hinder him during the chase by releasing their rear box-car and by dropping railroad ties onto the tracks to block Johnnie's pursuit; while he wasn't looking, the box-car was derailed by one of the timbers, and he was able to cleverly, adroitly and nimbly able to ride on his train's front cowcatcher as he flipped away a RR cross-tie strewn across the tracks; he was also briefly delayed when sidetracked onto a parallel dead-end spur track, and when he was confronted with a burning and smoking rear box-car left in his path inside a covered bridge
On a Howitzer Cannon Car and on His Own Train's Cowcatcher
  • once he was deep into Union territory, the Confederate army near Chattanooga was ordered to retreat in the opposite direction, but Johnnie didn't notice while chopping wood atop his fuel-tender to feed his engine; at the same time, Captain Parker's victorious Northern Army was advancing; Johnnie fled from his train after he heard head spy Captain Anderson's startled discovery atop a trestle bridge with a good view into Johnnie's cab that they were only fighting a one man army: ("There is only one man on that engine!"); Johnnie abandoned the Texas and fled into a deeply wooded forest during a heavy nighttime rainfall ("In the enemy's country - hopelessly lost, helplessly cold and horribly hungry")
  • while attempting to steal food inside a house, he was forced to hide under a table when the Union Army officers entered to use it as their HQs; he listened as the Union Generals discussed their plans for the campaign's launch of a surprise attack the following day: "At nine o'clock tomorrow morning our supply trains will meet and unite with General Parker's army at the Rock River bridge. Then the army, backed by our supply trains, will advance for a surprise attack on the rebels' left flank. Once our trains and troops cross that bridge, nothing on earth can stop us"
  • through a cigar hole burnt into the side of the tablecloth, Johnnie viewed Annabelle as she was brought in as a prisoner; Johnnie's new objective was clear - he must somehow disable the Rock River Bridge - an important Union supply line resource, and he must also re-kidnap Annabelle and reacquire his train and take both back to the Confederate South, to warn of a Union attack; later that night, he was able to recapture Annabelle while she was under-guard in an adjacent locked room; he knocked out two sentries, stole one man's wet uniform, and escaped with her into the woods for the night (after encounters with a lightning strike, a live bear and a bear trap); all night long, he bravely hugged and protected her in the same position
  • the next day at daybreak, Johnnie discovered a burlap bag full of shoes, emptied it, and used it to disguise Annabelle inside; for a short while, he lost one of his own shoes in the large pile; at the nearby railroad station where the imminent Union attack was being planned, Johnnie joined in a line of soldiers loading The General, and was able to discreetly unhook all the box-cars except the one immediately behind the fuel tender (wood-car) (where the disguised Annabelle was deposited); he worried that Annabelle would be covered by other freight or knocked out; he entered the cab, knocked out the conductor with a long firewood beam, started up the engine, and escaped; they began the long journey back to the South to warn the Confederacy, with the Yankees in quick pursuit; he was followed by two Union trains, including The Texas
  • on his way just outside of town, Johnnie used a rope to pull down a telegraph pole and its connected wires to disrupt communications; he then axed his way into the front of the box-car to free Annabelle from the burlap bag; the return trip was a complete reversal of his trip northward - he was now trying to escape from his attackers, and continually tried to slow their progress by throwing obstacles into their path (the telegraph pole, two pine trees on either side of the track with a rope strung between them, the box-car's rear wall, the bundles of freight, etc.)

Sweeping Cab with Broom

Tossing in Kindling Wood Sized Pieces

Exasperated With Her, But Offering a Loving Kiss on Her Lips
  • a romantic rekindling of his relationship with Annabelle developed during their time together; he was mainly exasperated with her silly efforts to help - including throwing away a piece of firewood with a knothole in it, sweeping the cab with a broom; in particular, he found her stoking the locomotive with toothpick-sized kindling wood and half-playfully grabbed for her by the neck, throttled and shook her, but then swiftly planted a small, loving kiss on her lips; when the first train caught up to them and hooked into their rear box-car, Johnnie uncoupled it; he was also able to maneuver it so that the two Union pursuit trains smashed into each other on an elevated side track; he also deformed the tracks at a main switching point to cause a major delay during repairs
  • Johnnie accomplished his main goal - to disable and destabilize the old and wooden Rock River Bridge where a division of the Union forces was about to meet their supply trains; he and Annabelle constructed a stack of firewood in the middle of the bridge and set it on fire, although Annabelle's efforts to help caused him to become trapped on the other side of the fire; to reach her side, he attempted to jump over the fire but fell through a gap in the rails into the river below, but then was able to join up with her in the cab
  • soon after, The General arrived back in Marietta, GA where Johnnie alerted the Confederate army in the Division's HQs; after avoiding a major stampede of troops in the streets leaving for the battlefront, Johnnie was able to reunite Annabelle with her convalescing father before he left to join the troops - after picking up a discarded sword belt and pistol
  • the most spectacular and expensive shot (or sight gag) in all of silent film history (filmed in a single take with an actual train - not a miniature) occurred next; when the Union pursuit train The Texas confidently moved half-way across the burned-through unstable bridge spanning the Rock River, it then fell downwards - both the train and collapsing bridge plunged into the river; it was a mass of hurtling metal, exhaling/hissing smokestack steam, burning bridge logs, and a geyser of belching smoke; the alerted Confederate Army then made a surprise attack on the Union Army as it tried to ford the river
  • Johnnie's slapstick efforts with a broken sword (while imitating the commanding officer) and a cannon actually helped turn the tide of battle, by spearing a sharpshooter and blowing up a dam to flood the area; the Union forces were compelled to retreat, as Johnnie grabbed and saved the Confederate flag from a falling soldier
  • in the conclusion, as a result of Johnnie's bravery and heroism, he was given a new sword and a Lieutenant's uniform to wear as a sign of his promotion ("Enlist the Lieutenant"), and proudly called himself a "Soldier"; watching from afar was the adoring Annabelle with her convalescing father
  • in the sweet and clever ending, as Johnnie and Annabelle both sat on The General's connecting cross-bar or side-rod between two wheels, he was forced to distractedly salute an unending parade of soldiers passing by with his right hand - interrupting his spooning (hugging and kissing) of his girlfriend; to solve the problem, Johnnie ingenuously re-positioned and adjusted himself (with Annabelle on his left) so that he could endlessly perform two simultaneous actions: romantically kissing Annabelle Lee and mechanistically and automatically saluting the passing soldiers with his right hand

Johnnie Gray's "The General" Locomotive

Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack)

Johnnie with Annabelle

(l to r): Union General Thatcher and Lead Spy Captain Anderson

Map of RR From Atlanta, GA to Chattanooga, TN

The Theft of Johnnie's The General at Big Shanty, GA by Northern Spies, and the Kidnapping of Annabelle

Johnnie Commandeering the Texas, But He Left Confederate Troops Behind on a Flatcar

Johnnie Single-Handedly in Pursuit

Uncoupled Mortar Car with Lighted Fuse and Loaded Cannon Ball Pointed Directly at Johnnie's Locomotive Cab

The Southern Army in Retreat Near Chattanooga, TN - Not Noticed by Johnnie Atop His Tender

Annabelle Still Captive On the Stolen General

Johnnie Hiding Under a Union Forces Table - Listening in on the North's Battle Plans

Johnnie's Iris-View of Kidnapped Annabelle

Johnnie Bravely Protecting and Hugging Rescued Annabelle All Night Long

Annabelle Freed From Burlap Bag Inside Box-Car

Catastrophic Bridge Collapse Destroying the Northern train The Texas

"Enlist the Lieutenant"

Final Scene: The Newly-Appointed Heroic Lieutenant Johnnie Gray Reconciling with Annabelle


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