THE GENERAL co-directed by Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman (USA, 1926).

Buster Keaton’s movie is now hailed as a classic. It was voted by BFI/Sight & Sound magazine as one of the best 50 movies ever made and topped a list of the Top 100 Silent Era Films.

Sadly , and ironically, it can also be likened to Jacque Tati’s equally ambitious Play Time in that audiences at the time were mostly left bemused and unimpressed.

The fact that both these movies were commercial flops meant that the subsequent careers of both stars took a serious nosedive.

Being ahead of your time is no joke.

The General features daring stunts and elaborately constructed set pieces, notably the crashing of The Texas train off a burning bridge. Instead of using a model in the latter scene, a real train was used for what proved to be the most expensive scene in the silent movie era.

As a 21st century viewer, I can marvel at the film while understanding why it alienated his fans when it was first released. Audiences at that time were used to seeing the stone-faced comic as a loveable failure and probably would have prefered to see him in more of a slapstick role. As Johnny Gray in The General he cuts quite a heroic figure. Only when he switches role from engineer to soldier does he become more of an accident-prone buffoon with more predictable sight gags.

The General includes the improbable plot device of Johnny’s sweetheart Annabelle Lee being taken hostage by Union rebels and held prisoner in a well-appointed bedroom rather than being beaten or sexually abused. Her rescue and the chase that ensues features choreography that is all the more remarkable when you consider that Buster Keaton refused to use stuntmen.

Unfortunately risking life and limb wasn’t enough rescue the film financially but Buster Keaton’s unwillingness to compromise guaranteed his place in movie history.

The movie is now in the public domain so you can watch it for free online, this You Tube version features an elegant score by Carl Davis: