Long before Buster Keaton’s train engineer sat on his beloved train’s pistons as they rotated up and down,the locomotive had already graced moving images—most famously in 1903’s fictional The Great Train Robbery and, even earlier, in the Lumière Brothers very real (and at the time unprecedented) 1896’s Arrival of a Train at La Coitat. Even before film, trains have long been established as symbols for movement, progress and, of course, human destiny. Manmade iron and wood trespassing on untouched frontier and not-yet-conquered wilderness, trains spelled a meeting point of civilization and nature, making it impossible not to be even a little romantic about the machines. Of course, no film has romanticized trains as splendidly as Buster Keaton’s The General, a film which quickly introduces Keaton’s engineer with the intertext “There were two loves in his life. His engine, and—” his girl, revealed not in the intertext but as a framed portrait sitting right above the train’s air compression gauge.
Released in 1926, The General was released to less-than-positive reviews from critics and a less-than-satisfactory performance at the box office (it remains Buster Keaton’s greatest financial failure). Yet over the near-century of its existence, Keaton’s film has enjoyed stupendous recognition and acclaim. Filmed in a stunning array of movement, acrobatics and glorious pyrotechnics, The General is a feat of heartfelt craft and rushing emotion that predates (and predicts) the high velocity action films dominating Hollywood’s silver screens from the late 1960s and upwards. Yet no film, even with the updated technology, could equal Keaton’s savvy for integrating comedy, drama and carnival-esque spectacle into something as unique and powerful as The General.
Set during the American civil war, The General focuses, peculiarly, on the Confederate Army’s attempts to drive back Union soldiers in the early stages of the bloody American conflict (whose details remain wisely understated). Buster Keaton plays the Confederate engineer of the beloved train of the title that will be eventually stolen by Union spies along with his beau, who is gagged, bound and thrown into a preceding train car. Keaton’s film employs many of the generic literary formats rejected by the great formalist D.W. Griffith, employing redemptive character arcs, circadian plotlines of melodrama and three-act structures, but his unparalleled approach to this tradition remains as thematically rich, formally inventive and structurally innovative as anything found in Griffith’s similarly “historical” Intolerance, released 10 years prior.
Through Buster Keaton and his relationship to his train, the film explores man’s tumultuous relationship with technology through propulsive images and rushing emotion available only to the advents of cinema. In The General, the titular train is seen being used for cargo, transport and war—but over the course of the film’s runtime Keaton’s antics (impressive in their choreography and timing alone) become invariably linked to the train’s destiny, denying the engine or the man a separate fate. Buster Keaton’s relationship to machinery is not one forged on capitalistic dehumanization—as it was in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times—but on man’s inevitable need for progress. Like Jules Verne, Keaton seemed to understand that only through technology could the individual break the limits imposed on the human endeavor.
Keaton takes it a step further than Verne by suggesting an almost codependent bond between the engineer and the train. Witnessing Keaton’s almost endless tinkering with the train’s flips and switches, feeding wood in its firebox, lodging obstacles off the tracks ahead of it and using overhead water stops to cool the engine, we see with show-stopping clarity how Keaton’s becomes the machine’s beating heart, and in return the machine becomes an extension of his human drive and fiery passion.
Through the course of the film, the train also becomes a powerful emblem of cinema’s imaginative properties. In The General, the train trespasses across boundaries imposed by nature, human division and the limits of imagination. He and the train move through tunnels and over bridges, across enemy lines and, ultimately, transcends the rules imposed by reality. Keaton’s train engineer enters, more than a diorama of American history, a cinematic dreamscape that only Buster Keaton’s eye for absurdism could master. In one especially funny scene Keaton attempts to fire a cannon fixed on a train car at the enemy train ahead. His plan fails when the cannon, with its already wick alight, lowers and aims at his own train car. But through sheer coincidence the train car holding the cannon inexplicably hits a curve on the tracks and miraculously manages to fire at the enemy car.
Through the employment of fierce determination and blind luck that allows Keaton’s train engineer to save the woman—and engine—he loves, Keaton ingrains into his film about man and his codependency with technology that no barrier, physical or metaphysical, can get in the way of man and his destiny. But is that any less apparent with the Keaton himself? His feats of stunt work, acrobatics and visual poetry are the results of a storyteller who could at once master physical hurdles and manipulate the movie camera to submit reality to his will, to trespass the ultimate barrier between reality and fiction.
Perhaps no film should be compared to it. It’s ingenuity have long been updated, outsourced and drowned out by the encroachment of new technology on Hollywood cinema, certainly Keaton’s film doesn’t hold up to the onslaught of “revolutions” in filming technology, but certainly no film has boasted Keaton’s magnificent sense of human empathy. Much like the titular steam train of Buster Keaton’s The General, film is as much a magnificent machine as it is the human vision running it.