Based on a true incident from the Civil War detailed in the book The Great Locomotive Chase, THE GENERAL is almost universally recognized as not only as Buster Keaton's masterpiece but also as one of the greatest films of all time. Of course the film is a comedy, but the gags are almost incidental to the story. There's some very funny stuff going on as Keaton, as southern engineer Johnny Gray, chases down his beloved locomotive, the General, stolen by the Union Army. But most of the sight gags spring naturally out of the situation and help further the story along. There are almost no jokes just for the sake of jokes in this film, and it should really be considered an adventure film with comic highlights. Much of the first half of the film is centered on the Union train-stealers' attempt to hinder Buster's pursuit (in another locomotive). Most of these situations lead to sight gags, but take away those gags and the film would be just as exciting to watch. In other words, Buster removes the obstacles -planks of wood, uncoupled boxcars - in funny ways, but he removes them nonetheless and the chase goes on.
Although this could be said bout many of Keaton's films, THE GENERAL holds up remarkably well all these decades later. From the moment Buster sets off to recapture his stolen engine, it is nearly impossible not to get caught up in the chase. In this film, there is no use of back projection or miniatures - what you see is what you get. Keaton truly did risk his life dozens of times over running, jumping, hopping and falling around trains all for the sake of the verisimilitude he desired in all of his films. That was Keaton, not even content with the kinds of hidden safety devices the equally crazy Harold Lloyd used to use in his films.
A self-described pet project of Keaton's, Keaton said that for this film, he wanted accuracy "...until it hurts." While it is a grand epic, often described as a moving Matthew Brady photograph because of its painstaking recreation of the Civil War, there is certainly nothing painful in THE GENERAL outside of a few morbid sight gags concerning the death of Union and Rebel soldiers. What did hurt was not the attention to detail but rather the failure of THE GENERAL, both with critics and more importantly, the public. It was obviously an expensive film to make, and included the mostly costly shot in all of silent movies, the Union train attempting to cross a burning bridge and plummeting into the river when it collapses. The failure of the film set Keaton on a downward career spiral which, along with some bad business decisions, left him helpless to guide his own future in films. By the mid-thirties, while Chaplin was still making silent classics and Harold Lloyd was doing well with talking comedies of his own, Buster Keaton, one of the most brilliant filmmakers and physical comics of the 1920s was essentially a has-been. It was not until the fifties and sixties that he would once again gain fame, mostly through television work and revivals of his old movies. At which time, THE GENERAL, box-office disaster of 1927, was officially hailed as a work of art and Keaton the king of the silent comedians. Keaton never complained. He probably even admired the circular timing of it all. ½ - JB
Locomotive Chase (1956) - Not a real remake, but a Disney
adventure film based on the same book as The General