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The General | Sample Film Case Study

The General | Sample Film Case Study

Example Case Study - On Edusites Film these case studies images and links to example film clips.

OCR H410 Film Studies Paper 1

Section A: Film Form in US Cinema from the Silent Era to 1990

The General (Bruckman and Keaton, 1926)


Section A of Paper 1 focuses upon the micro-elements of film form and the construction of meaning and response by both filmmaker and spectator, with a particular focus on US films from the Silent Era to 1990.

Knowledge and understanding of film form and its key terms will be developed through:

  • studying the micro-elements of film form
  • identifying how these elements construct meanings and contribute to the aesthetics of film
  • an appreciation of film poetics: film as a constructed artefact, resulting from processes of selection and combination

The purpose of this OCR Single Film Study guide is to provide a starting point for your own research and consideration of how each of the three films studied reveals ideas of how film language (the micro-elements of film form) create meaning and the response of audience spectators to this.

As such, the focus of this guide is not to provide a review or details of plot and narrative but to indicate how the micro-elements of lighting, sound, editing, performance etc. construct a look, a style of film that shapes how audiences respond to its ideas and intentions – film as a powerful emotional event that has manipulated audience feelings and attitudes since the silent era.

The work in this guide is linked by the Edusites OCR Film Studies Unit 1 where you will find ideas as to how to use the information contained in this guide to respond to the comparative tasks likely to be set in the examination.

The work in this single Film Guide assumes that you will have covered the material in the Edusites Advanced Level Film Studies Core Unit 1 where the elements of film language discussed in this guide are covered and explained in detail. You must remember that the tasks set in the examination will require responses to questions about individual films from an era and comparisons of films from different era. You will find sample tasks at the end of this guide.


Every film reflects the concerns of its time, the particular way of looking at the world in that culture, that society, that time. To fully understand a film, you need to know something of the era that spawned it. As you will have already considered in your Edusites Core Units, film is very much a cultural artifact, a reflection of the society that created and watched it. Each film is influenced by all of the films that have gone before it – the collective consciousness of how we ‘look’ at a film - and will have specific conventions that link it to others of its genre, its type. For your examination, an understanding of the film’s production and of events in the world at that time will offer perspectives on how to better view its narrative presentation and thematic concerns. More importantly, you will learn how its use of film language and film aesthetics will have been shaped (and in turn shaped) by the way that other films of its time were constructed.

Films are shaped by the contexts in which they are produced. They can, therefore, be understood in more depth by placing them within two important contextual frames. The first involves considering the broader contexts of a film at the time when it was produced – its social, cultural and political contexts, either current or historical. The second involves a consideration of a film’s institutional context, including the important contextual factors affecting production such as finance and available technology.

Social-Political Context

Every film is made by those workers in an industry who were part of the social world that the film is made in. The film-makers made films for audiences of their own time, not for a future time. They sought an audience for their film and did so by making films that reflect the values, beliefs and concerns of that time. The graphic violence of Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Penn) made in 1968 at a time of the emergence of a strong and active youth culture, in a rapidly changing and increasingly aggressive and pro-active political world could never have been made in the Classic Hollywood of 1930-1960 where films represented a more stable, traditional view of the world – strongly supportive of the police, of law and order, of social order and where films were subject to rigid censorship. Similarly, many of the style of films that had been so successful in the period of 1930-1960 – those such as the big musicals like Hello Dolly (1964 dir. Kelly) - flopped at the mid-sixties box office as they appeared dated and out of touch to these later audiences.

Whilst not a specific concern of the examination tasks, an understanding of each of the three of your chosen films will help you see how it is reflective of its time – which is crucial element of the comparative tasks.

Audiences viewing The General in 1927 would have been familiar with Birth of a Nation (1915) as a Hollywood representation of the American Civil War. As such, we can apply this idea of how a film can be reflective of its time in relation to The General.


The General is a fusion of war film, action adventure and love story, all presented within the mode of a comedy. As a genre piece it’s a useful reminder of how several genres typically come together within a given film.

For all of its fabrication and filmmaking precision, The General is based on an event that in fact occurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865) when a group of Union (northern soldiers who did not want the union of states to become fractured) soldiers who were fighting against the slaveholding south (the confederacy that wanted to dismantle the United States so as to maintain their slave-based economy), hijacked a southern train. The lone train engineer had to then contend with the raiding party and recover the stolen train. Keaton embellishes the given emotional weight of the comedy by contriving an addition to the story whereby Johnny’s girlfriend is on the train. As such, Johnny must rescue the train (and his girlfriend) and return it to confederate territory. In doing so he becomes a hero.

In The General, Keaton’s character, Johnny Gray, is rejected from enlisting in the Confederate army and so his entire ‘adventure’ becomes a character journey to express his latent heroism and ‘worth’.

To understand what comedy means in some essential way, let’s refer to the writing of Geoff King who explains in his book Film Comedy that “Comedy, by definition, is not usually taken entirely seriously, a fact that sometimes gives it licence to tread in areas that might otherwise be off-limits…Comedy…has something in common with forms such as horror and the ‘weepie’: defined to a significant extent according to the emotional reaction it is intended to provoke.” (1) Of this powerful connection with emotional expression, Buster Keaton himself was all too aware, once commenting that “I did not need to smile. I had other ways to show I was happy.” Buster Keaton

British film critic Derek Malcolm wrote of The General that “…the gags are never there for their own sake and seem totally integral to the story. What’s more, Keaton catches the essence of the Civil War period impeccably. It is a totally anti-heroic and anti-romantic film. Above all, The General seems like a film from a real director, almost perfect in structure and full of the rhythms of his best shorts.” (2)

This concise description of the movie pulls together concerns around ideology and film style working together and Malcolm’s is but one of many reviews and considerations of the film that speak to its continuing entertainment value and importance to the development of the comedy adventure genre film.

Auteur and Authorship

The idea of the film auteur was defined in the late 1950s among French film critics and it was founded on the concept that the director of a film could be regarded in the same way as the author of a novel: as the driving force behind the creation of a cultural artefact that might aspire to be considered in the same light as great literature or painting.

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