Johnnie loves his train ("The General") and Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War begins he is turned down for service because he's more valuable as an engineer. Annabelle thinks it's because he's a coward. Union spies capture The General with Annabelle on board. Johnny must rescue both his loves.
By the time Buster Keaton directed and starred in The General, he had completed over 44 feature and short films, 27 of these he had directed, 22 he had written, 7 he had edited, and 6 he had produced. Mind you, he had just turned 31 by the February premiere of this slapstick comedy. By the time he died of lung cancer in 1966 he would work on over 100 more features and short films. On top of all this, Keaton handled most of the dangerous stunts seen throughout his career. He was the Jackie Chan of his day. In fact, this is essentially an insult. Take the stunts of Chan, the physical humor of Jacques Tati and the wit of Woody Allen and you just might have created a man equal to Keaton's genius. "The Great Stone Face," as he was often referred to (in reference to the straight face his character's retained even in the gravest of situations), was a champion of physical comedy. Of the great silent era comedians, including Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle, his popularity is second only to that of the estimable Charlie Chaplin.
If Chaplin was the heart of the silent comedy, Keaton was the brains. The sight gags and stunts were clever, complex, captivating and novel. Take, for instance, one of his better known stunts. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., a film which would grace the screens a couple years after The General, Keaton is standing in front of a home after a tornado has run through town. The side of the building comes crashing down upon him. Keaton is miraculously standing directly where the second story window falls and slips through unscathed. What's more amazing is that he did this in one take with no test set-up. This is the courage and temerity that Keaton graces nearly every silent film he has done. Film after film found him in a situation where he was placed (voluntarily) into dangerous conditions with (as the example above proves) potentially fatal results. During one such film, Keaton broke his neck not realizing the severity of the situation until years later.
The General was no different when it came to acts fraught with danger, spending most of the 75-minute film on a moving steam locomotive. Whether he finds himself sitting on a train siding rod as it disappears into a tunnel, riding the cow catcher to remove objects from the track ahead of him or jumping from car to car, Keaton risked his life for the sake of comedy. And it pays off in dividends. Watching Keaton perform is like watching a magician perform acrobatics without a net. It's not surprising, then, to learn that he grew up in vaudeville with family friend, Harry Houdini (who, legend goes, gave him the name "Buster" after seeing him fall down a stairwell without harm).
The film's title is derived from the name of the steam locomotive that Buster's character, Johnny Gray, engineers and is based loosely on a true story. An early title card spells out Gray's motivation for all future actions in the movie; his love is divided between his train and his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (played superbly by Marion Mack). Civil war is upon the nation and Annabelle's brother dutifully enlists. Johnny, recognizing the pride Annabelle has in her brother, attempts to enlist, too. But the recruiters feel that Johnny's services as an engineer would better serve the war efforts and they promptly dismiss him. Severely disappointed, Annabelle refuses to speak to him again until he becomes a soldier.
Years later, while breaking for lunch during a routine trip, the enemy steal his train as part of a scheme to destroy the railroads. To his dismay, Johnny learns that Annabelle was on the train and has been taken hostage. He borrows a nearby train and pursues his rivals. In chase, both he and his enemy devise plot after plot to stop the other, almost all of them unsuccessful in one manner or another. One hilarious attempt involves a cannon and its unintentional trajectory. Another involves a train car that seems, to Johnny at least, to appear and re-appear out of thin air (Keaton's reaction is priceless).
Johnny eventually makes his way to the enemies quarters where he rescues his maiden in distress and manages to overhear the plans of an impending attack. Ever vigilant, Johnny concocts a plan with the help of Annabelle to warn their unsuspecting allies of the enemies intentions. The enemy, as it would naturally seem expected, learn of his plan and chase after him. Johnny, a master of the railroad, still has a few tricks up his sleeve and employs them with humorous aplomb. He finds a soldiers uniform hidden in the train and upon arriving at camp quarters, he happens across a gun holster. Informing the army of the pending attack, he joins their ranks and helps defeat the enemy, redeeming himself in the eyes of Annabelle.
The General, considered a classic by nearly every major critic, is probably Keaton's best work, culminating as the apex to several prior brilliant films (including Our Hospitality, The Navigator & Sherlock Jr.). It was unfortunate for Keaton that audiences and critics of the day were not so impressed. Many walked into the movie with assumptions that the tone was pure slapstick comedy and were surprised (and disappointed) to find the humor was wrapped up in an action-oriented adventure. Audiences may have been equally turned off by the fact that Keaton's protagonist was a Southern gentleman and sided against the Union. Box office totals suffered and, respectively, Keaton suffered, too. As it had been a rather expensive flop, distributors lost confidence in his ability to produce and eventually he would relinquish all control over his production status to maintain an acting career with MGM.
Like many films and, consequently, their creators, their talent is often ahead of their times and their worth unrecognized. Modern audiences now appreciate the ingenuity of Keaton's masterpiece: his comedic timing; his deadpan face; his incredible pacing; the cinematography even for today's standards is outstanding.