Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Buster Keaton, Marian Mack
Directors:  Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  Two Buster Keaton Short Films
Length:  75 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 1999

Film ****

For me, the controversial AFI Top 100 films list lost all credibility by failing to include even one movie by one of America’s most imaginative and gifted filmmakers, Buster Keaton.  Particularly, the omission of The General, considered by many critics worldwide to be one of the top ten movies ever made, almost always scoring higher rankings than any Chaplin film.

The General is a masterpiece in many ways.  One, it remains a thoroughly exciting and entertaining movie, even more than 70 years after its release.  Two, it’s the film that most accurately captured the look of Civil War America, by painstakingly recreating sets and costumes from old Matthew Brady photographs.  “Make it so real, it hurts,” Buster was quoted as saying to his designers.  As such, this film really is the war come to life for most modern audiences.  Three, it was a comedy so far ahead of its time that today, it seems like one of the freshest pictures from the silent era, even though it largely failed to find an audience during its day.

The General had been a project long on the burner for Keaton, who found inspiration in a true Civil War story about a group of Yankees who stole a southern train and drove it north with the intention of burning bridges behind him.  Since Buster had long been one of his most profitable stars, producer Joseph Schenck finally greenlighted his pet project, and the incredible amount of money it would take to realize his vision.

Buster plays Johnnie Gray, a southern engineer with only two loves:  his train, and his lady, Annabelle Lee (Mack).  When the war breaks out, he finds his chance to prove his mettle by enlisting.  But being more valuable as an engineer, the army refuses to take him.  “If you lose this war, don’t blame me,” he tells them.  But his girl, thinking him a coward for not enlisting, wants nothing more to do with him.

As fate would have it, she ends up on his train, The General, as it heads north.  While passengers and crew are at lunch, a division of Yankee soldiers seize the train and make off with it, taking Annabelle along as a hostage.  Thus begins one of the cinema’s great chases, as Johnnie finds another train and sets off in pursuit.

This premise served two purposes:  one, it allowed Buster, one of the greatest physical comedians and stuntmen who ever lived, almost unlimited possibilities for hysterical gags and breathtaking feats, most of which come from him trying to operate the train, fight the bad guys, and protect himself from their acts of sabotage single handedly—all while he and his train stay on the move.  And second, the fact that the film stays in almost constant motion makes the picture an exciting experience.  The action never lets up, and Buster’s masterful use of tracking shots plays beautifully.

The second half of the film is the reverse of the first…once Johnnie has rescued Annabelle and learned of the Northerners’ plans to bring a supply train down south to make their army unbeatable, the two must race back on The General, this time with the Yankees pursuing them, in order to warn of the attack.  One scene demonstrates Buster’s mastery of tracking and timing:  we see the Yankee train pull right behind Johnnie’s box car, and begin to climb aboard.  As they do, the camera moves forward to the front of the box car, where we see Johnnie is loosing it, one step ahead of them.

The chase leads to the movie’s climactic scene—the most expensive single shot of the silent era.  The Yankee train attempts to cross a bridge Johnnie has set fire to, and the entire rig collapses, dumping the train into the river below.  People came from miles around to witness the filming of the crash…a stunt so bold and costly, it could only be done once.  Thankfully, it worked on the first take.

The locomotive’s destruction leads to a terrific battle sequence at the river, one of the biggest and most painstakingly constructed ever.  Explosions were set everywhere, and Buster had to be cautious as to when and where they would be set off, and letting his enormous cast of extras know exactly where they would be, so no one would get hurt.  When the picture was finished, Buster was certain it was his masterpiece.

Critics and audiences at the time, however, were not so sure.  It still boggles my mind to read actual film reviews from that time period and try to believe that so many hated this classic picture.  Why?  Well, as mentioned, Buster’s film was definitely ahead of its time.  People were actually appalled at the notion that he created a comedy about a war.  War was not something to laugh at, and word quickly got around that The General was a distasteful picture.  The film didn’t come close to recouping its enormous cost.  As such, Buster, not unlike Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, created what would one day be considered one of the greatest films ever made, but the ironic initial failure would both haunt and begin the unraveling of the remainder of his career.

Video **1/2

This disc is actually the Kino version of the film, distributed by Image on DVD.  Having looked for some time, I found theirs to be the best looking version of The General I could come up with.  Unfortunately, it’s not as good as I would like.  Images on screen are sharp, clear, and well defined…no complaints there, and very little in the way of grain.  The picture even boasts the correct original color tinting.  The problem is, the film is very old, and looks it.  The negative has been ravaged by time, leaving more than a share of streaks, scratches, spots, scars, and other nasty bits of business.  Will it ever look better?  I don’t know, but I’d like to see Criterion try.  That being said, the image is far from unwatchable.  As I said, it merely shows its age.  I must repeat that it’s the best looking version of The General I’ve yet seen. 

Audio ***

The Dolby stereo soundtrack features a newly recorded musical score, and sounds quite good.  No complaints.

Features ***

Like the VHS version, the disc contains two excellent shorts from Buster Keaton.  In “The Playhouse”, Buster uses skillful trick photography with tight editing and careful use of multiple exposures to create a minstrel show where he’s the only attraction…all the players on stage, in the orchestra, and even all of the audience members.  In “Cops”, one of his most popular short films, Buster plays a naïve character who always seems to be getting in trouble right under the noses of the police.  The finale, where he’s chased by hundreds of cops through the streets, is quite a spectacle.  This film also features some of Buster’s best and most well-timed stunts.


The General is a true comedy classic, envisioned and crafted by one of America’s true film icons.  It has stood the test of time and earned its place of consideration on the lists of the greatest movies ever made.  Even if you think you won’t like a silent film, you should give this one a look…you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it still is after more than 70 years.