by Daniel Scully
Most people don’t look at a movie like The General and categorize it as a spy movie. And why would they? Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent classic may be considered a masterwork from the early days of cinema, but nothing about it rings of espionage. Anyone who has seen it knows that it’s just a long showcase of visual gags designed to exhibit the technical ingenuity of the filmmakers, and as the last entry in Keaton’s independent filmography before moving into a tumultuous relationship with the studio system, it could even be argued that it’s the first legitimate stunt reel ever made. If anything, it’s a relic from such an early time in Hollywood that it almost predates genre, existing in the minds of many viewers as a “silly silent movie that I’m supposed to respect because film nerds tell me I should.” And while it’s not not that, it really is so much more…
In fact, I contend that more important than its influence as a feat of craft is its influence as a narrative model. The way that The General blends both spectacle and story is something that few movies can pull off so cleanly, even with a wide array of filmmaking tools at their disposal. With the limitations of film at the time — namely that it was almost entirely visual, save for live musical accompaniment — it had to adhere to the most important filmmaking rule of all: Show, don’t tell. Leave clunky exposition on the cutting room floor and use this wonderful medium to its fullest potential. If I wanted someone to clearly explain a story to me I’d just read a plot description on Wikipedia or watch an episode of Dexter. That’s no fun. Film is an art form. Make those pictures move!
And move The General does, at a pace which still rivals the decades of exciting cinema still rocking in its wake. While just about any movie with an escalated pace owes a debt to The General, I believe that the likes of James Bond and the Impossible Mission Task Force owe the greatest debt of all. You see, despite being a silly slapstick romp resultant from a film crew having unprecedented access to a steam engine, The General is actually the progenitor of the blockbuster spy movie. That’s right, long before James Bond and Ethan Hunt were tearing up the box-office with complete disregard for their own well-being, humble train conductor, Johnnie Gray was getting the job done...even if he did so almost entirely by accident.
Think back to the marketing for any Mission: Impossible or Bond film. In recent years, the ad campaigns heavily feature the one giant action set piece around which the film will be built. It’s fun to imagine a yearly writer’s room in which the goal is to come up with exciting ways to kill Tom Cruise, only to have him learn every skill needed to survive. Last time, he tied himself to a plane. This time he will be flying a helicopter through the woods or something while Henry Cavill’s mustache watches. The General has a similar approach. Keaton got his hands on an actual steam engine and then explored every dangerous, visually interesting thing one can do with it, and then filled in the gaps with plot.
Said plot is as follows: Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is a mild-mannered conductor in the Civil War era South (more on the implications of this later). When the military rejects his application to serve, citing his usefulness as a tradesman, he finds himself emasculated in front of the woman he loves, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). He even dons a fake name and a swagger in an effort to con the recruiter, but is unsuccessful. If only he had a life-like rubber mask, eh? Dejected, he resigns himself to being “less than” and goes back to work. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Johnnie’s beloved steam engine has been stolen by Union spies with Annabelle on board, and it's up to him to rescue his two greatest loves.
The entire movie plays as an extended set piece, where Johnnie finds himself running after a train, running from a train, driving a train, climbing across the top of a train, and even using his body to connect separate train cars. All of this is a precursor to the climactic sequence of Brian De Palma’s original Mission: Impossible film, the imagery of which has informed the entire franchise. Also echoing Keaton’s intense locomotion is the opening scene of Skyfall, in which cool-as-a-cucumber James Bond works his way to the front of a train by engaging in fisticuffs on top of and within it. Heck, even Fast Five, which could reasonably be categorized as spy-adjacent features a The General-esque train robbery at its outset.
Of course, the one thing that a spy must do best (and our boy Tom Cruise is the undefeated champion of such a thing) is run. Whether the clock is ticking or doom is giving chase, if our super spy can’t run, the job will not get done. Someone is going home without that briefcase. So it’s fitting that Johnnie’s adventure begins with him literally sprinting after a train. And in the first instance of another spy movie trope — one I’d like to call “Plan A, Plan B, Improvise” — Johnnie stumbles across a handcart, but fails to make it work. He finds a boneshaker bicycle, but can’t drum up enough speed. Ultimately, fortune shines upon him and he is able to steal an engine from a Union encampment, after which point he pulls a very typical spy move and dons the enemy’s uniform as a disguise.
Multiple instances of “Plan A, Plan B, Improvise” follow as Johnnie must react to a variety of hurdles placed in his way by the enemy. The enemy drops railroad ties onto the tracks, he removes them. They cut loose their cars, he resorts to his knowledge as a conductor to clear them from the rails. It’s in these moments that Johnnie’s abilities compare to that of a James Bond in that his training is unrivaled. Granted, in the case of Johnnie, it is only by happenstance that his, uh, certain set of skills seem to fit the task at hand. Outside of the many instances in which Bond is tasked with being inhumanly good at poker, most of his skills are designed to suit the job. It remains to be seen if Post-Murder Puns 101 is a class offered at MI6, but my head-canon says it is so.
In perhaps the greatest moment of espionage in the entire film, Johnnie abandons his borrowed engine after his cover is blown and his enemies find that they are being pursued by just one man and not a Confederate squadron. He runs into the woods where, just like any spy who needs to be off the grid for a bit, he must survive the elements while avoiding enemy sight. He eventually finds shelter in the form of a Union encampment. After sneaking through an open window, he finds himself in a functionally identical, but oppositely staged version of the typical “behind enemy lines” sequence. Johnnie must follow the exact same rules Ethan Hunt did when he had to steal the NOC list from the world’s most secure computer system. If you remember, Hunt had to maintain a near impossible level of invisibility in order to pull it off. Dangling from a rope, he had to hack into an enemy computer without making a sound, without touching anything, without even breaking a sweat. Similarly, Johnnie has unwittingly become trapped under the enemy’s dinner table. And as he listens to them candidly discuss their plans, he must remain silent and invisible.
Twice Ethan Hunt’s plan moves into the “improvise” stage. The first instance occurs when an absent minded employee enters the computer station and Hunt must be lifted above sight lines. The second occurs when a single drop of sweat falls from the rim of his glasses, forcing him to catch the offending droplet in his hand before it hits the ground and triggers the alarm. Similarly, Johnnie finds himself in close quarters with the legs of the enemy while hiding under the table, and he must dodge them all while staving off a dust-invoked sneeze. It’s when one of the Union soldiers accidentally burns an area of the tablecloth with a cigar that Johnnie really has to improvise. He blows silently at the burning cloth, careful not to blow too hard or make any sound. And wouldn’t you know it? The freshly burned hole gives Johnnie a perfect window through which to see that Annabelle is being kept prisoner at this very encampment. Add to that the information gleaned from his accidental eavesdropping session, namely that the Union forces will be launching a surprise attack, and this mild mannered conductor has just done the work of fifty spies, purely by chance.
While most cinematic spies would surely be reluctant to admit it, luck is perhaps the most potent tool in the arsenal. How many times has Ethan Hunt been saved from falling to his death by a perfectly placed outcropping? How many times has a bullet meant for his head just missed splattering his brains against the wall? How many times has the burst from an explosion blown him perfectly to safety? Has Bond ever found himself in a situation where he didn’t have the exact gadget needed to succeed? Furthermore, has Bond ever been given a gadget that wasn’t used to its fullest potential? Not once. Johnnie has a similar lucky streak. Be it his fortuitously aimed tossing of firewood knocking an enemy stowaway unconscious, or the fact that the northern encampment he stumbled upon contains both his romantic interest and his stolen train, Johnnie is consistently in the right place at the right time. Even in the final battle sequence we watch as fellow Confederate soldiers are gunned down one by one while Johnnie looks on incredulously, all the while avoiding 100% of the musket balls meant for him.
In the end, Johnnie rescues his engine, derails the enemy’s perfect plan, and manages to get the girl. In a comical denouement, he finds himself promoted to a high ranking position, which gets in the way of his romantic reunion with Annabelle. His burden of returning salutes to his new inferiors is solved by blindly saluting with one hand in a machine-like manner, while the bulk of his attention is paid to Annabelle. The tone and function of this scene is exactly the same as what we see at the end of just about every James Bond film in the franchise, when our hero makes a sexually charged pun while flipping the proverbial bird to the authoritative structures which aim to dictate his next move. The credits roll as we in the audience chuckle at the implied intercourse.
As for our heroes being of the Confederate Army, Keaton himself indicated that it was a choice made for two reasons: First, that the tale is loosely based on a true story, and second, that comedy works better through the eyes of an underdog. While some may argue that this is a defective view, further suggesting that Keaton himself may have been a Confederate sympathizer, there’s really no evidence of such a thing. And really, if Buster Keaton’s hapless conductor is indeed the precursor to the modern movie spy, having a controversial real world outlook certainly fits the brand. He ticks all the boxes. Does all his own stunts? Is seemingly indestructible? Harbors some strange, upsetting beliefs in his personal life? Sounds a lot like someone I know...