‘The General’ – Buster Keaton’s one-man Civil War on Prime Video and free on Kanopy

Buster Keaton was one of the greatest filmmakers of the silent era and The General (1926) has been hailed as his greatest achievement.

The Great Stone Face stars as Southern railroad engineer Johnny Gray, a man with only two loves: the sweet Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and his trustworthy engine, the eponymous General. When Fort Sumner is fired upon he’s one of the first to enlist, but when the war office rejects him (he’s too valuable as a trained engineer) his sweetie rejects him as a coward. Johnny has the opportunity to prove his bravery when Yankee spies steal his engine and inadvertently kidnap Annabelle and Johnny pursues with all resources at his disposal: handcar, bicycle, and finally his beloved railroad engine.

Keaton’s films were often built around a love/hate relationship with technology and machinery. Where Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the machinery and used the power of his magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. That theme shines as he becomes one with his beloved locomotive, scrambling over the engine as a one-man crew as he goes on his solo mission and wrestling with a finicky cannon that threatens to blow his engine off the tracks. He nails the humor with the most deadpan takes in his career and spunky Marion Mack makes a perfect partner for Keaton, not merely a foil but a gifted comedienne in her own right.

The General maintains an admirable fidelity to authenticity in costumes and props—the imagery evokes Matthew Brady’s Civil War photography—and the visual scope of the film is not simply impressive, it is dramatic and cinematic and at times awesome. Keaton’s Johnnie Gray takes on the Northern army practically single-handedly and Keaton the director (he shares credit with Clyde Bruckman, who was behind the camera while Keaton was onscreen) frames it as a David and Goliath battle aboard charging locomotives.

Other Keaton films contain more laughs and inspired comic stunts, but none combines romance, adventure, and comedy into a solid story as seamlessly as this silent masterpiece. It wasn’t well received in 1926 but Keaton counted The General among his favorite films. It has since been hailed a masterpiece, one of the finest silent films ever made and one of the great film comedies of all time.

It was added to the National Film Registry in 1989 and was placed in the number 95 spot in the 2022 Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll and even higher in previous polls.

For more on the production backstory, read this essay from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival showing.

In black and white, silent with musical score

The General fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, and DVD releases. Both Kino Lorber and Cohen Film Collection have released high quality editions of this film. We only recommend superior editions at Stream On Demand.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video (Cohen Film Collection), iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The General / Three Ages (Kino Classics) [Blu-ray]
The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Cohen Film Collection) [Blu-ray]
The General / Three Ages (Kino Classics) [DVD]
The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Cohen Film Collection) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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