The General is one of the purest delights that the cinema has to offer. Its construction, and its appeal, is utterly simple, and yet there's a visual poetry to it that goes far beyond its minimalist surface. Buster Keaton's most famous feature, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, is quite possibly also his best, and certainly the most direct, undiluted example of his kinetic, visceral comedic action. The film has not a shred of fat on it, not a wasted moment. There's none of the sometimes meandering set-up that kicks off some of Keaton's lesser features, no need here for extended exposition or narrative. It's just one great scene, one great pantomime gag, after another.
Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer on a Southern rail line during the Civil War. When the war starts, he tries to enlist and is rejected because his civilian job is too important, but his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family just thinks he's a coward, so the serious young man — who, a title card informs us, loves only his train and his girl, probably in that order — is eager to prove his bravery and his masculinity. With that out of the way, the film then hurtles forward into the two extended railroad chase sequences that together comprise virtually the entirety of its running time. The film is neatly halved: in the first half, Keaton pursues a group of Union train thieves across Union lines, and in the second half he steals back his train and is chased by the Union army back across Confederate lines, in a race to warn the South before a sneak attack is sprung.
The scenario was based on a real incident from the war, and Keaton treats it with his characteristic serious comedy. In fact, it's easily his most straight-faced and least comic film, which isn't to say that it's not funny (it is!) but that its humor is subtle even for him, the gags organically incorporated into the structure of the action-packed sequences. In that respect, it resembles the thrilling action climax to Our Hospitality, and of course it also expands upon Keaton's train fascination from that film, spending virtually the entire film with one great train gag after another.
If The General isn't Keaton's funniest film, it's definitely his most astonishing, the densest of his works in terms of pure how-the-hell-did-he-do-that stunt bravado. Keaton leaps from one train car to another, throws giant beams of wood around, climbs across the front of the engine, bounces from the train to the tracks to clear obstructions, and rigs traps to trip up his pursuers. In one justly famous moment, he sits on the front of the train and throws a beam out in front of the train so that it lands on a second beam and sends them both catapulting off the tracks. It's done casually, as though there's nothing to it, as though these massive wooden blocks aren't careening around a few feet from Keaton's vulnerable figure. It's dazzling, almost more frightening than it is funny, and it displays Keaton's perfect grasp of physics-based gags, his sheer imagination, his courage, his ability to precisely map out movements and make each motion, each trajectory, both graceful and somehow funny.
A perfect example is the scene where Keaton lights a cannon to fire at the Union train, then comically dodges around when the cannon barrel lowers to point at Keaton's train instead. The punchline is typically all about trajectories: the trains turn a curve in such a way that the cannon, at the precise moment that it is fired, is once again pointing at the enemy train. The physical comedy, if it can even be called that, is inspired throughout. Keaton's a real action hero here, and his no-nonsense physicality only makes the moments when he indulges in a slapstick gag — like the scene where he throws firewood onto the train but keeps knocking the beams off — even funnier. There's also some deadpan wit in little details like the hilariously stoic portrait that Keaton gives to his girl (he's posed, of course, in front of his first love, his train). Although Keaton's the undoubted star, Mack proves a very capable foil for him, most notably in the scene where she throws tiny shreds and splinters of wood into the train's furnace, causing Keaton to, in quick succession, strangle her and kiss her.
One great sequence actually takes place in a rare break from the train action, when Keaton hides under a table listening to some Union officers plot their attack. There's a lot of wonderful tension here, both comic and genuinely suspenseful, especially when one of the soldiers burns a hole in the tablecloth with a cigarette and lifts it up. For a moment, Keaton can be seen, staring out at the camera in terror from under the table, while the officer simply extinguishes the embers around the burn hole and lets the tablecloth fall again. That poignant glimpse of the frightened Keaton, looking pleadingly at the camera, is unforgettable. Soon after, there's a pair of shots that cleverly use the hole in the tablecloth to frame Keaton's eye and Annabelle's face (she'd been taken prisoner by the Union). It's appropriate that Keaton here frames and emphasizes his own eye like this, because his eye, his utterly clear and direct vision, is at its absolute peak in this marvelous film.