The General is a 1927 silent comedy released by United Artists based upon the Great Locomotive Chase from 1862. Buster Keaton starred in the film and co-directed it with Clyde Bruckman. It was adapted by Al Boasberg, Bruckman, Keaton, Charles Henry Smith (uncredited) and Paul Girard Smith (uncredited) from the memoir The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger. The film was a box-office disaster at its original release, but is now considered by critics as one of the greatest films ever made.
Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a Confederate in the Civil War, with a fiancée named Annabelle Lee and a job as a train engineer. When many men in his town are urged to sign up for the army, he is first in line but is turned down, as an officer thinks he is more valuable as an engineer, but Johnnie is not told this. While leaving, dejectedly, he comes across Annabelle's father and brother, who beckon to him to join the line, but he sadly dismisses them and walks on. This is misinterpreted by the father as an act of running away, causing him to tell Annabelle that her fiancé is a coward who would not even get in line to sign up. Annabelle coldly informs Johnnie that he had better get in uniform if he ever wants to speak to her again then walks away. A year passes, and Annabelle receives word that her father was wounded. She travels northward to find him, but her train -- coincidentally Johnnie's train --is hijacked by Union spies, and she is kidnapped. It is up to Johnnie to rescue his beloved engine and girl, as well as the Army of Tennessee.
The plot turns on a chase between two locomotives and a railroad worker, played by Keaton, initially on a handcar and later on another locomotive. Although played for laughs in the film, many of the events actually occurred in a chase through Georgia and Tennessee between trains pulled by locomotives named The General and The Texas (see Great Locomotive Chase for more details on the actual event). The event was also the subject of the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase.
Keaton performs lots of dangerous physical stunts on and around the moving train, which include 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 side 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 visual effect of the forlorn Buster as the motion of the side rod moves him gently up and down is very poignant. But in real life, it is nearly impossible for any engineer to start any train moving this precisely. If he had not accelerated by exactly the correct amount, the rods would have moved so fast as to send Buster flying, certainly injuring or killing him. The story goes that it took considerable persuasion on his part to convince the engineer to go through with it.
The climax of the film includes a spectacular moment where a bridge (sabotaged by Johnnie) collapses as a railroad train crosses it (compare The Bridge on the River Kwai). Keaton filmed the bridge 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 were filmed going right-to-left. He did not tell the actor portraying the Northern commanding officer what to expect: his look of total shock was genuine.
The production company left the wreckage after the scene was filmed, so they left the wrecked locomotive in the river bed, where it became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years. The metal of the train was salvaged for scrap during World War II.
Critics and audience responsesEdit
The General was a box-office disaster and received only extremely poor reviews upon its release. Variety reported that the theaters in which it played that, "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." The New York Times stated that in this picture Buster Keaton "is more the acrobat than the clown" and that he "looks like a clergyman and acts like a vaudeville tumbler." The Los Angeles Times reports 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 pictures at the box office. This disappointed him as he considered it to be the best of all his movies. Audiences and critics would later agree with him after re-considering the film as an "art picture" rather than as pure entertainment, and it is now considered a major classic of the silent era.
The film was ranked #18 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition). 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, going in with such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Blvd.
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