Stasis – In 1861, Johnnie Gray, portrayed by Buster Keaton, is the proud locomotive engineer of The General. His love for the little steamcab is matched only his love of his girlfriend and fiancee, Annabelle Lee (played by Marion Mack), who he keeps a portrait of in his compartment.
Precipitating Incident – It’s not long into the film when he attempts to enlist for participation in the Civil War, but is turned down by a Southern general who believes that his engineering skills are more valuable to the South than his usefulness in a fight. Regardless, a dejected Johnnie (who is never told the real reason of his rejection) believes he is physically unfit compared to those who are accepted, while he is mistaken by others to be a coward who refused to enlist. Unable to know that Johnnie was rejected as a soldier because he is too valuable as an engineer, Annabelle threatens to never speak to him again unless he gets into a uniform. We soon see the dejected Johnnie console himself behind the driving bar of The General as it moves off into the darkness.
Rising Action – A year later, Annabelle receives word that her father has been wounded, and takes a train headed north to visit him. Coincidentally, the train she happens to take is The General, Johnnie Gray’s train. The General becomes part of a Union plan that involves being hijacked by spies and used to destroy telegraph lines and bridges. What follows is a series of chase scenes involving Johnnie chasing the spies, who have taken Annabelle Lee prisoner, and then being chased by them.
Climax – The action culminates with a spectacular finale in which Johnnie sabotages a The Rocky River Bridge so that it collapses under the weight of a Union train crossing it, all while he is dressed in the Confederate officer’s garb that he had long thought himself unfit to wear. He fights ineptly with a sword, yet somehow manages to survive unscathed while accidentally killing the sniper who had shot all the men around him and inadvertently defeating a significant number of union soldiers with a misplaced cannon shot.
Falling Action/Restoration of Balance – the film ends with Johnnie Gray becoming the hero of the day, not only restoring his self-dignity but recovering both his train and the heart of his girl. The two most important things to him from the start of the film, are now his again. Johnnie becomes rewarded with enlisted into the army as no mere private, but a lieutenant.