The General




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British Film Institute



Peer reviewed


A meticulous recreation of a famous episode from the American Civil War, The General (1926) was co-written and directed by Buster Keaton, who also starred in it as a Southern locomotive engineer whose life is disrupted by the outbreak of hostilities. A unique blend of Keaton’s characteristic ‘frozen-faced’ performance and stunning acrobatics, cleverly staged and spectacular action, beautiful landscapes, physical humour and tender moments, the film tells a moving story about love and war. Strongly criticised by many reviewers in 1927, since its re-release in the 1960s The General has come to be recognised as one of the greatest achievements of American silent cinema.

Drawing on a wide range of archival sources, this short monograph (of 112 pages) places The General in the context of Keaton’s long career on stage and screen, and of Hollywood cinema in the 1920s. It explores how Keaton came to select and realise his most ambitious project, and offers the first detailed comparison between the film and the book it was based upon, William Pittenger’s Capturing a Locomotive: A History of Secret Service in the Late War (1885). The systematic and in-depth analysis of the film highlights its distinctive style and thematic concerns, revealing complexity in its apparently so simple story and tragedy in its happy ending. This book also examines the marketing and financial performance of The General and explains why it became a turning point in Keaton’s career.



Buster Keaton, American Silent Cinema, Civil War, film style, adaptation, film industry, narrative analysis


Krämer, P. (2015) The General. London: British Film Institute.


Research Institute

Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI)