The General is a 1926 American silent comedy film released by United Artists. Inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase, which happened in 1862, the film stars Buster Keaton who co-directed it with Clyde Bruckman. It was adapted by Al Boasberg, Bruckman, Keaton, Paul Girard Smith (uncredited) and Charles Henry Smith (uncredited) from the memoir The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger.
At the time of its initial release, The General, an action-adventure-comedy made toward the end of the silent era, wasn't well received by critics and audiences, resulting in mediocre box office returns (about a half million dollars domestically, and approximately one million worldwide). Because of its then-huge budget ($750,000 supplied by Metro chief Joseph Schenck) and failure to turn a significant profit, Keaton lost his independence as a filmmaker and was forced into a restrictive deal with MGM. In 1954, the film entered the public domain (in the USA) due to the claimant's failure to renew its copyright registration in the 28th year after publication.
The film has been reevaluated, and is now considered by critics as one of the greatest films ever made. In 2007, The General was ranked #18 by the American Film Institute on their 10th Anniversary list of the 100 best American movies of all time.
Western & Atlantic Railroad train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is in Marietta, Georgia to see one of the two loves of his life, his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack)â"the other being his locomotive, The Generalâ"when the American Civil War breaks out. He hurries to be first in line to sign up with the Confederate Army, but is rejected because he is too valuable in his present job; unfortunately, Johnnie is not told this reason and is forcibly ejected from the office when he tries to enlist surreptitiously. On leaving, he runs into Annabelle's father and brother, who beckon to him to join them in line, but he sadly walks away, giving them the impression that he does not want to enlist. Annabelle coldly informs Johnnie that she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform.
A year passes, and Annabelle receives word that her father has been wounded. She travels north on the General to see him but still wants nothing to do with Johnnie. When the train makes a stop, the passengers detrain for a quick meal. As planned, Union spies led by Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) use the opportunity to steal the train. Annabelle becomes an inadvertent prisoner. Johnnie gives chase, first on foot, then by handcar and boneshaker bicycle, before reaching a station in Chattanooga. He alerts the army detachment there, which boards another train to give chase, with Johnnie manning the locomotive, the Texas. However, the flatcars are not hooked up to the engine, and the troops are left behind. By the time Johnnie realizes he is alone, it is too late to turn back.
The Union agents try a variety of methods to shake their dogged pursuer (convinced he is accompanied by Confederate soldiers), including disconnecting their trailing car and dropping railroad ties on the tracks. As the unusual duel continues northward, the Confederate Army of Tennessee is ordered to retreat and the Northern army advances in its wake. Johnnie finally notices he is surrounded by Union soldiers and the hijackers see that Johnnie is by himself. Johnnie stops his locomotive and runs into the forest to hide.
At nightfall, Johnnie stumbles upon the Northern army encampment. Hungry, he climbs through a window to steal some food but has to hide underneath the table when enemy officers enter. He overhears them discussing their plan to launch a surprise attack; Johnnie learns that securing the Rock River Bridge is essential for their supply trains. He then sees Annabelle brought in; she is taken to a room under guard while they decide what to do with her. After the meeting ends, Johnnie manages to knock out both of the guards and free Annabelle. They escape into the woods.
The next day, Johnnie and Annabelle creep out of the woods and find themselves near a railway station, where Union soldiers, guns, trains and equipment are being organized for the attack. Seeing the General in the midst of it all, Johnnie devises a plan to warn the South. After sneaking Annabelle, hidden inside a sack, onto a boxcar behind the General, Johnnie steals his engine back. Two other trains, including the Texas, set out after the pair, while the Northern attack is immediately set in motion. In a reversal of the first chase, Johnnie has to fend off his pursuers. Finally, he starts a fire behind the General in the center of the Rock River Bridge.
Reaching friendly lines, Johnnie informs the local army commander of the impending attack. Confederate forces rush to defend the bridge. Meanwhile, Annabelle is reunited with her convalescing father. The Texas is driven onto the burning bridge, but it collapses, in what would later come to be recognized as the most expensive stunt of the silent era. Union soldiers try to ford the river, but Confederate artillery and infantrymen open fire on them, eventually driving them back in disarray.
After returning from the battle, Johnny feels himself separated from the celebrations ensuing, as he is still not a soldier. He returns to his locomotive to find the Union officer he had knocked out earlier in order to escape regaining consciousness on the floor of the cab. He takes the officer as a prisoner in a chivalrous manner, and is spotted by the general leaving the locomotive with a Union officer in his custody. The general formally takes the officer prisoner by accepting his sword. As a reward for his bravery, Johnnie is commissioned as a lieutenant in the army and given the captured officer's sword. In the final scene, Johnnie tries to kiss his girlfriend but is obliged to return the salutes of passing soldiers. Johnnie finally uses one hand to embrace his girlfriend while using his other to blindly salute the men as they walk by.
- Buster Keaton â" Johnnie Gray
- Marion Mackâ" Annabelle Lee
- Glen Cavender â" Captain Anderson
- Jim Farley â" General Thatcher
- Frederick Vroom â" A Confederate General
- Charles Henry Smith â" Annabelle's Father (as Charles Smith)
- Frank Barnes â" Annabelle's Brother
- Joe Keaton â" Union General
- Mike Donlin â" Union General
- Tom Nawn â" Union General
Keaton performed many dangerous physical stunts on and around the moving train, including jumping from the engine to a tender to a boxcar, sitting on the cow-catcher of the slow moving train while holding a railroad tie, and running along the roof. One of the most dangerous stunts occurred when Buster sat on one of the coupling rods, which connect the drivers of the locomotive. In the film, the train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed.
The climax of the film includes a spectacular moment where a bridge (sabotaged by Johnnie) collapses as a railroad train crosses it. Keaton filmed the collapse in the conifer forest around the town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, using 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. They all dressed up in Union uniforms and were filmed going left-to-right before changing into Confederate uniforms and being filmed going right-to-left.
The production company left the wreckage of the locomotive in the river bed after the scene was filmed. The wrecked locomotive became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years, until it was salvaged in 1944-45 for scrap during World War II.
The General on its initial release fared poorly in both box office and critical reaction. Variety reported of a theater in which it played, "after four weeks of record business with 'Flesh and the Devil', looks as though it were virtually going to starve to death this week." It goes on to say that The General is "far from funny" and that "it is a flop." New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall stated, "The production itself is singularly well mounted, but the fun is not exactly plentiful", and "This is by no means so good as Mr. Keaton's previous efforts." The Los Angeles Times reported that the picture is "neither straight comedy nor is it altogether thrilling drama" and goes on to state that the picture "drags terribly with a long and tiresome chase of one engine by another." It was one of Keaton's worst-performing pictures at the box office.
Keaton considered it to be the best of all his movies. Audiences and critics would later agree with him, and it is now considered a major classic of the silent era.
In 1989, The General was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It made it into the registry in the first year it was enacted, along with such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, Singin' in the Rain, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Sunset Blvd and The Wizard of Oz.
In a 2002 poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made, critic Roger Ebert listed it on his top 10. It is also on his list of The Great Movies. It was ranked number 1 in a list of the 100 greatest films of the silent era by the website silentera.com.
U.S. film distributor Kino International released the film on Blu-ray Disc in November 2009. This is the first American release of a silent feature film for the High Definition video medium. The Blu-ray edition replicates the same extra features of Kino's 2008 "The Ultimate 2-Disc Edition" on DVD, including the choice of three different orchestral scores as soundtrack.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs #18
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) #18
In 1953, a new version of the film was created by Raymond Rohauer, a film distributor and collector. The movie was re-edited with an introduction and music. As of 2013 this version is under copyright, as Rohauer filed a copyright registration in 1953 and renewed the copyright in 1983.
The story was remade in 1956 by Walt Disney as a non-comedy adventure film starring Fess Parker and entitled The Great Locomotive Chase.
- Buster Keaton filmography
- List of United States comedy films
- List of films in the public domain
- Orson Welles interview, from the Kino 10 Nov 2009 Blu-ray edition of The General
- Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure by Lieutenant William Pittenger
- Huntley, John (1969). Railways In The Cinema. Ian Allan. pp.Â 33â"42. SBN 7110 0115 4.Â
- The General on YouTube
- The General at the Internet Movie Database
- The General is available for free download at the Internet Archive
- Choice Clips (Public Domain)
- The Raid Lives On
- Tour of The General filming locations