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 #43, and for this one, we’re sticking with the same film as last time–albeit at a point earlier in the movie!
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
Johnnie’s train has been stolen by Union soldiers, in the hopes of using it to destroy important Confederate supply lines. Johnnie has given chase in another train, but due to an oversight has done so by himself. As a result, he has no one to assist him in escaping the various sabotage attempts that the enemy soldiers have attempted to inflict upon him.
The enemy soldiers have taken to dropping loose railway ties onto the tracks behind them, in an effort to destroy Johnnies train and halt his pursuit. Not to be stopped, Johnnie has climbed out onto the front of his train, perching on the cow-catcher. He picks up one of the ties before the train hits it, but he’s approaching another one that’s leaning on the tracks, and there appears to be no hope. The train approaches, and at the last second, Johnnie is able to drop one tie so that it hits the edge of the other, bouncing it away from the track.
The beauty of this shot is the beauty of some of the best of Buster Keaton’s filmmaking, which is the amazing stuntwork. Just like in the post about this same film from last time, we know that what we’re seeing is the real deal: Buster (as Johnnie) really is sitting on the front of a moving train (albeit slow moving) and he really is throwing something that at least looks like a railway tie so that it knocks another one off the tracks in the nick of time. We see this in a clear, unobstructed bit of a filmmaking, where there’s plenty of time for us to feel the tension of the moment, so that when the stunt actual comes off (and Johnnie wins the victory, for the moment) it’s completely engaging and satisfying.
To the frustration of the Union soldiers, the chase continues, with Johnnie eventually succeeding in catching up with his missing train and his missing woman.