Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is a simple soul. He loves the locomotive he drives and he loves his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee. Sadly, a misunderstanding at a recruitment office sees Annabelle kick Johnnie to the kerb, leaving him to look even more forlorn than usual.
Sometime later, Johnnie's train, The General, becomes part of a convoluted plot as Union spies highjack the vehicle, hoping to influence the outcome of the American Civil War. This leaves Johnnie, their sole pursuer, to save the day and win the girl.
Even if you've never seen Buster Keaton's seminal 1926 picture, The General is likely to feel immediately familiar. The actor and co-director's incredible, lunatic stunts – his many jumps along a moving train, his escape from a burning pyre, the cowcatcher collision – have been frequently parodied and referenced ever since. Every image and sequence is iconic: the bound-and-gagged damsel; the hero listening in as the bad guys outline their plans in detail; his saluting the troops with one hand while he embraces his girlfriend with the other.
Keaton’s own favourite Keaton film boasts silent cinema’s most expensive sight gag – a wide-angled $42,000 sequence in which a train plummets from a collapsing bridge into a river. Even Buster, the movieverse’s greatest deadpan, must have struggled to keep a straight face as the engine roared past 500 extras.
Unhappily and rather unbelievably, The General initially failed to connect with critics and audiences. Its reputation and standing on the American Film Institute best-of lists would come later, as viewers came to note its breathtaking inventiveness, grammatical influence and thoroughly modern sensibility.
Odd and humbling to think that The General was inspired by a real-life Civil War heist that took place only 64 years before Keaton shot his rendition.