80 min / 1927
The General is equal parts comedy and action, with just a dash of romance thrown in as well. Johnnie Gray has two loves in his life: his steam engine “The General,” and his girl Annabelle. When the American Civil War begins Johnnie, like every loyal Southerner, lines up to enlist in the Confederate Army. But unbeknownst to poor Johnnie, train engineers aren’t allowed to sign up, as they are more valuable as engineers, not soldiers. Try as he might, he just can’t join the Army, and when he finally returns to Annabelle without successfully enlisting, she thinks it’s because he’s become a coward. She sends him away, telling Johnnie she will only see him again when he’s in uniform.
Johnnie leaves, heartbroken, and returns to his other great love, his steam engine. But poor Johnnie is in for even greater heartache – Northern spies steal his General and take off with it down the rails toward the North. In an instant, Johnnie goes from being sad and lonely to determined and resourceful. He steals another train and chases after the spies and the stolen General in one of the most brilliant, madcap, action-packed sequences ever caught on film.
I watched this film with teenagers and people in their twenties, thirties and forties and they all loved it. If you watch only one silent film in your life, make sure it’s The General.
The film’s copyright expired long ago, which means all sorts of companies have been free to publish it and sell their own copies. However, not all have done a good job. In the worst versions, the soundtrack doesn’t match the action onscreen – it’s just random classical music. You can get a glimpse of how a good soundtrack adds a whole other dimension by watching the Kino version’s trailer below. Watch it once with the sound, then watch it again with the sound off. It’s odd, but a good soundtrack really matters, even for (and actually, especially for) a silent film. So be sure to track down one of the good versions!