By the time Buster Keaton made The General (co-directed by Clyde Bruckman) in 1926, Civil War melodramas were already old-fashioned. In the early silent era, the Civil War and the Antebellum South provided fodder for countless narrative films by U.S. studios, so that by the time Keaton made his film, this was well-worn territory.
The most notorious and widely viewed has of course been the overtly racist Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), but Griffith was just one of many filmmakers who found inspiration in the Civil War period.
As a filmmaker, Keaton was generally inspired by D.W. Griffith and reported seeing Birth of a Nation multiple times. So, it’s not surprising that although his approach to the Civil War is apolitical in The General, his film nevertheless contains traces of the Lost Cause mythos that permeated Civil War films, plays, and novels well into the 20th century.
In an article in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Whitley Kaufman makes the argument that the Civil War setting is almost immaterial to The General‘s story, saying that the film “is a comic portrayal of war in general, not of a particular war.” Kaufman cites as evidence that “[t]here is no mention of slavery or of secession, no indication of which side is right or wrong…” However, such depoliticized treatment was central to the remythologization of the Civil War that persists to this day.
The Civil War was living memory throughout the silent era. But, as Bruce Chadwick points out in his book about Civil War movies, the historical narrative of the war had already been rewritten before the first film camera even took up the subject. In the years immediately following the Civil War, there was a systematic and concerted effort to reframe the war in order to reunite the nation, quell bitterness, and assuage the ego of the defeated Southerners. Known as the “Lost Cause” narrative, this version of the Civil War downplays the conflict over slaveholder rights, amplifies the notion of “states’ rights,” and embraces the honorable valor of soldiers on both sides.
Some of this reframing came from well-intentioned efforts by politicians hoping to heal a fractured nation. But it’s important to remember that Ku Klux Klan-adjacent organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy also pushed this narrative (in the case of the UDC, through school textbooks). If you attended a public school in the south, you may have learned about the “War Between the States” or the “War of Northern Aggression.” (This is a contrast to the framing utilized by newly freed Black people, who for a period may have been more likely to refer to the Civil War as the “Freedom War” or “Slavery War.”)
Keaton’s The General falls within this remythologizing tradition. In fact, it’s the very reason that the hero of our story is a would-be Confederate soldier, and our antagonists are Union generals, rather than the other way around. The source material for the film, a non-fiction book detailing a real Union hijacking of a confederate train called “The General,” was written by a Union soldier. However, Keaton was concerned that audiences would reject a film where Confederates were cast as the villains, and so he shifted the perspective of the story to make them the heroes. This illustrates how entrenched the romanticization of the Confederacy and the Antebellum South was in U.S. culture. For Northern audiences, watching a Confederate hero was unremarkable; for Southern audiences, this was laudable.
Certainly, The General is an ironic comedy that pokes fun at the genre of the Civil War melodrama. But it does so affectionately, and in a way completely in keeping with prevailing ideas of its time.
Alan Bilton’s “Buster Keaton and the South: The First Things and the Last” in the Journal of American Studies 40.3, 2006.
Bruce Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, 2001.
Gary W. Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War, 2008.
Kristin Hunt’s “What Drove Buster Keaton to Try a Civil War Comedy?” in JSTOR Daily, July 2, 2020.
Whitley Kaufman’s “On the Ending of Buster Keaton’s The General” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television 47.4, 2019.
Contemporaneous reviews in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and The Sun (Baltimore).
From February 17 to March 3, IU Cinema will revisit The General as part of the 10 Years, 10 Films, 10 Perspectives series. You will be able to stream the film to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
The Cinema previously screened The General in 2014 with live orchestral accompaniment and the Midwest premiere of a new musical score by Andrew Simpson as part of our City Lights Film Series.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.