On this day in history, 150 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg began. Whether it was a heroic fight for a noble cause, or a terrible slaughter (about 50,000 dead; almost ten times the population of the town where I live), there can be no doubt that it was an event that shaped the history of the world, in such a way that the consequences can still be felt.
There are surprisingly few interesting movies about the American Civil War on the Internet Archive. One of those few happen to be Buster Keaton’s The General.
The General is based on the true story of a band of of Union spies who stole a train and drove it through Confederate territory, causing as much damage as possible. They were followed by the train’s conductor with two other men, and this is where Keaton takes off with his story. Keaton takes the role of the train engineer Johnnie, who desperately wants back his train, and also his girlfriend who happened to be on board when the hijacking was made. He has to go through fire and water (literally) to do so. Keaton adapted most of the story to fit the needs of a comedy, but otherwise he went to great lengths to make the details (such as the locomotives) historically accurate. Interestingly, the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is based on the same events, but tells the story from the Union perspective.
Perhaps the most memorable parts of The General are the many amazing stunts and effects, not least the scene where a steam locomotive crashes into a ravine when a bridge falls apart. This was apparently the most expensive single scene to be filmed during the entire silent era, and the locomotive is actually real. It remained there on the bottom of the ravine for decades.
It is very difficult to imagine The General without the stunts. The success of this film builds very much upon the body language and amazing timing of one of the all-time greatest of film comedians. If you have never seen Buster Keaton before, then this is a very good place to start. In my opinion, Keaton has made even better films, but even so it is one of the greatest comedies of the silent era.
When you have finished watching this film, you should take a look at the fantastic blog Silent Locations, which has a post about the film. Make sure to follow the link to the complete presentation about the film. Amazing stuff!
This film is best enjoyed after having been to a good railway museum (such as the one in Kennesaw, Georgia, where the real The General still stands).
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)