The General is a 1927 comedy film set during the Civil War and starring Buster Keaton, a Western & Atlantic Railroad engineer named Johnnie. The film begins at the start of the Civl War. Johnnie is with his fiancee, Annabelle when they get the news the war has started. Johnnie attempts to enlist but is turned away because he is more valuable to the South as an engineer then a soldier. Unfortunately, he is not told why he is turned away, leading Annabelle to believe he chose not to enlist. She coldly tells him she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform. A year later, Annabelle gets word her father has been wounded and travels north on Johnnie’s train to visit him. However, the train is captured at a meal stop by Union soldiers with Annabel on board. Johnnie pursues the train and the rest of the film is centered around his attempts to warn the Confederate army of the Union’s plan while keeping his love, Annabelle, safe. After many blunders, Johnnie successfully warns the South and wins back his love because of his bravery.
I chose to examine this film through the lens gender using Judith Butler’s Gender Theory. Butler asserts that gender is performative. That people play the roles of male and female, and are playing a part rather than displaying inherent, gender-specific traits. It’s easy to see these gendered performances in The General, as men are portrayed as the strong, dominant characters, while Annabelle is a weak woman that is frequently pushed around and in trouble. Annabelle’s character even manages to keep perfect hair and makeup, despite being kidnapped, rained on, thrown on a moving train, and sleeping in the forest. Her dress is still perfect at the end of the movie! Incredible!
However, more importantly than poor costuming decisions, Annabelle’s character’s life solely revolves around the men in it. She appears to have no interests or job other than being attentive to her father and brother. She is the epitome of a proper lady, doing as her father and brother command, and otherwise being utterly helpless. At the time, this is how women were “supposed” to be. Even at the time of the films release, women were still largely considered to be the weaker sex.
In the film, Johnnie has “two true loves,” his train, and Annabelle. However, Annabelle is treated more like an accessory than a woman. Johnnie frequently misplaces, drops, and forgets her as one would their car keys. My favorite part was when he put her in a bag in order to smuggle her onto a train with the actual cargo! His actions also tie into Butler, as Johnnie does everything in his power to make Annabelle consider him a “real man.” He doesn’t attempt to enlist in the army until she asks him if he will. His only concern is convincing her that he is the “right” type of man. Once he fulfills her expectations at the end of the movie, they are able to finally be together. His “act” was finally enough.
Additionally, Annabelle is frequently portrayed as the damsel in distress, constantly needing saving and help whenever she foolishly tries to use her girl brain to come up with an idea. Johnnie, despite being extremely clumsy and not particularly bright himself, is her knight in shining armor, rescuing her from her own mistakes. Thank god for him! The is frequently portrayed going silly “female” actions such as sweeping the train or fixing her skirt. She falls into Butler’s theory of gendered performance quite easily.
Upon its release in 1927, The General was not well received. It made little money in the box office and critics reviewed it harshly, saying it lacked humor and adventure. Since then, it has been reevaluated and is considered one of the greatest early American films. Given the time, it’s not surprising that the film did not have a great reception among crowds. The 1920’s were a time of sexual expression and feminism, with women cutting their hair and hemlines short, smoking cigarettes, and gaining more independence. Annabelle is the sole woman in the film and is hardly a flapper girl.
Additionally, people in the 20’s were looking for a good time. The Civil War film, although filled with the usual slapstick comedy blunders, tends to drag on. Ultimately, it is a film consisting of Buster Keaton clumsily hurting himself time and time again. While it was filmed and produced well, people were not entertained by the humor or thrilled by the action. I was interested to learn that the film was actually based on real events. However, that magic was lost when I realized that a woman captured by soldiers during the Civil War was most likely to encounter far worse circumstances than portrayed in the movie. Furthermore, I was unsettled by such a blatantly pro-confederacy movie and the implications of that.
Movie: The General
Release Date: February 5, 1927
Director: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Producers: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Girard Smith
Screenwriter: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Charles Henry Smith, Frank Barnes, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn
Link to Movie: https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/general