And we continue with this series of 47 moments in film that I love. (Why 47?) I am almost not 47 anymore, so I should really get these done. This is number #42.
The General (1926)
Directed by Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
A young train engineer named Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) during the American Civil War embarks on a daring mission to rescue Annabelle—the woman he loves—and his train, both of which have been captured by Union Soldiers.
The Set Up
After many harrowing adventures, Johnnie (Buster Keaton) has succeeded in rescuing both Annabelle and his train. He has also set fire to a particular bridge that is critical for an imminent Union attack. The Confederate soldiers, alerted by Johnnie, engage with their enemy at the bridge, as it continues to burn…
Undaunted and desperate, the Union forces send their train over the bridge, hoping to make it before the fire consumes it, but they are too late. The bridge gives way, and the train plunges into the ravine below.
This is another example of a moment which is notable because of when it was done. In this climactic moment of Buster Keaton’s adventure comedy, a train literally falls off a burning bridge and crashes spectacularly in the bottom of a ravine. All of this is shown in one, simple wide shot, so what’s happening is crystal clear. There’s no quick cuts, no montage of images to build suspense, nothing like that. It’s as if the event itself is all we need to tell the story and create the cinematic impact.
And that, simply, is true. This is not a miniature, it’s not an optical effect, it’s not CGI. The filmmakers really did send a train over a damaged bridge so that it would crash in the most dramatic way possible, and because we know it’s real, it’s amazing to see.
Apparently, this moment has come to be recognized as being the single most expensive shot in the whole history of silent film, costing $42,000 at the time, which one internet calculation puts as being about $584,972.20 in 2018.
Thanks to Johnnie’s bravery and quick thinking, his side wins the day, Johnnie is commissioned into the army (something he was ashamed of having previously failed to do) and Annabelle gives him her love.