While we fill the days and nights of self-isolation, this is a great time to discover films that we may have overlooked—especially films from long ago. Buster Keaton’s The General, a 1926 silent film, is thought by some, including Orson Wells and BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine, to be the greatest comedy of all time. It was among the first class of films to be inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Perhaps you don’t think much about silent films, but you have to admit this film has a pedigree.
Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is a young railroad engineer in Georgia. He has “two loves in his life”: his engine, named the General, and Annabelle Lee. While making a courting call on Annabelle, word arrives that Ft. Sumpter has been fired upon, starting the Civil War. Her brother and father immediately head off to enlist. Johnnie gets to the recruiting station first and tries to enlist, but as a railroad engineer, he’s deemed as more valuable doing that than as a soldier, so he is rejected—even though he tries several times. Annabelle’s family don’t know this and think he’s a coward.
A year later, Annabelle heads north to find her injured father. It happens to be on a train pulled by the General, but when they reach a dinner break and Johnnie is away from the engine, it is stolen by a Yankee spy and his cohort. Johnnie gives chase, first on foot, then by handcar, even on bicycle. Eventually he finds a Confederate troop train and loads it up to give chase, but the other cars aren’t connected to the engine, so Johnnie is in pursuit alone. Most of the film from this point is that pursuit filled with pratfalls on a moving train as Johnnie tries to catch the Yankees, who are trying to stop his progress.
When he finally does catch up, he discovers that Annabelle was a prisoner on the train. He hears the Yankees’ plans to use the train to supply advancing troops. Freeing Annabelle, he steals his train back to warn the Confederates of the attack. Now the train chase begins anew, with Johnnie and Annabelle being chased.
This non-verbal humor may not be what modern viewers expect, but Buster Keaton was a master at physical humor. His acrobatic skills are the basis for much of the humor in his films. But the comedy is also tied to the situation he has created—and it is here that I think we can consider how this film relates to the days and nights of COVID-19.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “We do not lose control of our lives. What we lose is the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.” Buster Keaton’s humor is often built around out of control situations. In The General he finds himself on a barreling train, uncertain what he’ll have to do next or what dangers lie ahead. Even though we are staying at home during these days of social distancing, we may well feel that everything is out of control. The pandemic is our train barreling down the track. Each day we find new obstacles, new worries. We have certainly lost any illusion of control in our lives. That doesn’t mean we should just give up. Like Johnnie Gray, we need to face every challenge with courage and determination. While we may feel like we’re just along for the ride, these are days that call for heroic perseverance.
The General can be streamed at Kanopy and YouTube.