“The General” may not be the funniest of the Buster Keaton movies on the list. That price goes in my opinion to “Sherlock Jr.” or “Seven Chances”. But in my eyes it ranks as the most coherent and complete movie of his. “The General” is not a string of individual gags. Everything happens because it works for the story. That they happen to be funny is a nice bonus, but this is not crazy comedy. There is a sort of comedy where everybody acts as loonies and the framework of reality is lost (an extreme example is “Airplane!”). That is funny for a while, but the comedies that work best on me is when the protagonist (or the sidekick) is doing his or her antics in a believable world of normal people. “The General” takes place in exactly such a universe and Keaton while undeniably being his usual self is not so silly that he is not believable himself.
Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a train engineer in Georgia at the onset of the Civil War. He has two loves in his life: His engine and his girl. The order is a bit unclear. When war is declared he is strongly encouraged by his family in law, especially by his girlfriend Annabelle, to enlist in the Confederate army. This seems to be a recurrent theme of the age. Apparently between the wars families could not wait sending their loved ones into battle. In any case the army does not want him. He is more valuable to the South as a train engineer. Only they do not tell him that. Instead he feels like a reject. His family in law takes it even worse. To them he is a lying coward. Annabelle will not see him till he wears a uniform. Sweet girl.
When a Northern spy steals The General (Johnnies engine) the movie kicks off. Johnnie instantly takes up pursuit by foot if that is what it takes. He soon enough gets a train (though he immediately losses the car with the patrol of soldiers on it) and we get a really unique sequence in movie history: A train chase! And what a chase it is! I have never seen anything like this in any other movie. Two old engines chasing each other. Keaton in his usual style alone and hopelessly unequipped up against a well-armed train. Nothing they throw at him is able to stop him and it is not for lack of trying. At some point Johnnie picks up a car mounted with a monstrous cannon. This cannon is more a comical relief than of actual use for Johnnie. When the barrel accidentally drops and aims at his own train we can easily imagine him blowing his own engine to smithereens.
Against all odds Johnnie makes it alive and almost catches up with The General. By then however he is deep inside Northern territory and he realize that it is probably a good idea to lay low. While looking for food he stumbles upon a staff meeting among the officers of the Northern army and lying quietly under their table he learns of their cunning plane to surprise the south through a quick and stealthy crossing of an important river. Johnnie also learns that Annabelle is in the house. She was accidentally on the train when it was stolen and is now an accident hostage. She is quite pleased to see Johnnie thinking he came all the way to save her. And yes, he is in uniform now, though a Northern on at that.
They steal back the General and run for the Southern lines. Again we have a train chase and this time Johnnie’s is the hunted one. The comical element now, beside their absurd situation on a train being chased by an entire army, is that Annabelle is even more hopelessly inadequate for the task than Jonnie. In fact Johnnie comes out as the competent one who repeatedly has to rescue them from the trouble she is placing them in. But she is sweet and so is he and of course they make it. They save the day by alerting the Southern army and the Northern army is stopped by the river.
You will notice from the above that I am more concerned with the story than the gags. The plot is simply so good and so captivating that that was my focus all through. That also propels the movie up in the ranks of top classics, not just among comedies but in general.
I just have to say it again. Those engines are awesome! I want one.