History of Film Essay #2 – The General

Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) demonstrates his devotion to his train, girlfriend, and his country throughout the film, The General. However, the object of his greatest love changes from beginning to end.

At the beginning of the film, we witness as Johnny attempts to prove to his girlfriend how much she means to him by enlisting in the Confederate Army. However, he is turned down because of his expertise as a train engineer. When he tells her that the army would not take him, she assumes he did not even try. Unlike the other men in town who are set a fire with passion for their country, Johnny is not broken hearted at the news that he cannot fight. However, after his steam engine, The General, is stolen by the North he races after it, more passionate than ever, because the object of his greatest devotion is gone.

While stealing the train back, the object of Johnny’s affection switches, as he discovers his girlfriend, Annabelle, (Marion Mack) has been abducted as well. He then focuses on rescuing her from the Yanks. However, she acts ridiculous and sometimes gets in the way. For example, at one moment she throws out a good piece of firewood because it has a hole in it, and also sweeps the engine floor. Perhaps, Buster Keaton has a subtle message hidden in the subtext of the play about woman and their contribution to society.

While rescuing Annabelle, Johnny learns of the Union Army’s plan to use trains to set all the towns along the railroad tracks ablaze, followed by an attack by Northern troops. During the final chapter, the subject of Johnny’s greatest love switches again, this time from girl to country. He creates diversions to stall the pursuing trains, so that he can warn the South of the oncoming attack. He is courageous and even fights alongside the troops, even after being denied admittance in the beginning.

During the film, The General, Johnny Gray demonstrates his devotion to his train, girlfriend, and his country. However, it is during the struggle to steal back his train that he discovers his devotion for his girlfriend, Annabelle. Similarly it is during the struggle to rescue his girlfriend that a love develops for his country, and thus finding courage within himself.

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