Essay: Buster Keaton’s the General from 1926

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published on: January 19, 2020
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  • Buster Keaton’s the General from 1926
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Buster Keaton’s the General from 1926 was a silent film that hilariously displayed the idea of love verging on obsession. This film exhibited how love for objects, people, and a cause can make people transcend what was thought to be humanly impossible. Johnny Gray had two loves, his train and his fiancé. Throughout the film, this love is proven time and time again through his stunts and willingness to go into danger. There were many points in his pursuits of his loves that defied what should be thought possible to be done by any random person. He went from jumping in front of the train cart he was using multiple times to get rid of debris all the way to setting a bridge on fire so that the enemy train would fall into the river and crash. He proved his devotion to his fiancé by helping her successfully escape from an enemy house during a storm in the middle of the night. While this is plausible, it is something that many people would be hesitant to try. This idea of love transcending goes beyond just Johnny and his loves to the people fighting the war. The Union soldiers had such a passion and love for their cause that they went above what they would typically do in battle. This goes to show that love for a cause can be an extremely powerful force in getting things done.
This film was set in the Civil War, a period in time that had just finished only 30 years prior. It is important to note that The General is based off of a true event called the “Great Locomotive Chase”, a military raid that took place in 1862 between the North and the South. The General may have been impacted by the social setting of the 1920s because it came out less than a decade after World War I. In the wake of the end of that war, people could have wanted to see something humorous about a war that was not so recent. It could almost be seen as a reprieve from the dark times America had been facing. This film was also naturally a 1920s commentary on the Civil War, where we might perceive it differently now. It was interesting to note that the character being rooted for was from the South, as this would be seen as a very interesting choice today so long after the Civil War. Many people at that time still believed in the cause of the Confederates while now-a-days we see their cause as something to be frowned upon. Even though nothing about slavery or why they were on the side of the war they were on was spoken about, and it was based on a true story, it is still strange to see a movie being on the side of and having you root for the South in a way. It proves that we, in modern times, perceive the Civil War in a different light than the people did in the 1920s.
This film was impactful on the technology of the era because of how it took everything to new heights. For example, it had the most expensive stunt up to that point: crashing a real life train. This set a precedent for future movies, as well as the question of how technology could improve so doing stunts of that much grandeur could not be as costly. The technology in this film was incredible due to the amount of stunts performed. What is even more astounding is the fact that Buster Keaton did practically all of his own stunts. It was interesting to watch the technology shift in this film as there was a moment after Johnny rescued Annabelle when lightning struck. It was very obviously not realistic lightning and looked rather fake. Meanwhile, other parts of the technology of this film was much more realistic. Overall, this film’s theme and historical context is definitely something to be noticed and pondered about in a critical way.

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