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A Tale of Two Generals: Keaton vs Disney

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Sometimes in the visual arts it is interesting to look at two different takes on the same subject. Often as not, both efforts at portraying a theme or event will be interesting, but the difference in approach can also be enlightening.

In this case, the subject is the Great Locomotive Chase. During the Civil War a group of Union infiltrators stole a train in Georgia with the intent of disrupting Confederate transportation and communications, and in those days trains were a vital military resource. On April 12, 1862, Andrews Raiders, a motley group of Yankee scouts and spies, stole the locomotive The General in northern Georgia near Kennesaw Mountain and proceeded to cut telegraph lines and tear up track, hoping to seriously disrupt the Rebellion. Various Confederate troops pursued them, but one Southern train conductor, William Allen Fuller, took the theft personally and first on foot, then by handcar and finally rounded up troops and a loco and pursued the Yankee saboteurs. Andrews and his men were captured and some executed: they became Union heroes and were awarded the Medal of Honor. Fuller, while being awarded no medals, was a Southern hero.

Such are the basic facts; but consider how different generations of filmmakers handled the subject. In 1926 the famous silent film star, Buster Keaton, made the movie The General. Although told for comic effect, the story focuses in on the Rebel conductor who led the effort to recapture the stolen steam engine. While you won't see the film on TV or in the theaters anytime soon, various prints are available online, the main difference being in the musical soundtracks. Keaton, one of the legendary "Silent Clowns" puts in one of his best performances, combining pathos, courage and humor in his performance. Surprisingly, given modern Hollywood's lack of originality, no one has seen fit to do a remake of the Keaton classic. Are you listening Jim Carrey?

Contrast this early classic with the 1956 Disney rendition, The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker. Here the focus is on the Yankee raider, James Andrews (Parker) and his raiders. Parker, better known to that generation for his role as Davy Crockett, puts in an able performance as the heroic leader, although Conductor Fuller still gets a nod for his efforts on behalf of the Confederacy. Filmed in lush color and with the classic Disney touch, there is little doubt that this film may be more accessible to modern viewers; but of the two films, this reviewer would judge Keaton's performance by far the better effort, despite its age.

If any Examiner readers ever get tired of the dreck of teen vampire romances or yet another entry in the bogus cannibal zombie apocalypse category, they would be well advised to hunker down with these two flicks and see for themselves whether they still hold some value.

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