The General (1926 film)

The General

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Buster Keaton
Produced by Joseph Schenck
Buster Keaton
Screenplay by Al Boasberg
Clyde Bruckman
Buster Keaton
Charles Henry Smith
Paul Girard Smith
Based on The Great Locomotive Chase
by William Pittenger
Starring Buster Keaton
Marion Mack
Music by Carl Davis (1987)
Robert Israel (1995)
Baudime Jam (1999)
Joe Hisaishi (2004)
Timothy Brock (2005)
Cinematography Bert Haines
Devereaux Jennings
Edited by Buster Keaton
Sherman Kell
Buster Keaton Productions
Joseph M. Schenck Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • December 31, 1926 (1926-12-31)

[1] (Tokyo)

  • February 5, 1927 (1927-02-05)

(New York City)

Running time
75 minutes (8 reels) (times vary with different versions)
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget $750,000
($10,041,823 today)
Box office $1,000,000 (worldwide)

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 and Charles Henry Smith 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.[2]

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.[3]


Video of the full film

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)—the other being his locomotive, The General—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).[4] 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, Johnnie 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.



Keaton riding the cowcatcher in the film. Keaton grew his hair long for the film.

In early 1926 Keaton's collaborator Clyde Bruckman told him about William Pittenger's 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase, about the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase. Keaton was a huge fan of train history and read the book.[5] Although the book is written from the Union Army perspective, Keaton didn't believe that the audience would accept Confederates as villains and changed the story's point of view. Keaton attempted to rent the real-life The General for the film. At that time the train was on display at a Chattanooga, Tennessee rail station, but the train's owners denied Keaton's request when they realized that the film was a comedy.[6]

In April 1926 Keaton's location manager Burt Jackson found an area in central Oregon with old-fashioned railroads which was a perfect setting to shoot the film. He also discovered that the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway owned two vintage trains from the Civil War era and purchased them for the production. He later bought a third train engine in Oregon to portray "The Texas" for the purpose of using in a train wreck. Producer Joseph Schenck was excited about the film and gave Keaton a budget of $400,000. Keaton spent weeks working on the script and preparing for elaborate pyrotechnical shots. He also grew his hair long for the film[7] and hired Sennett Bathing Beauties actress Marion Mack in the lead role of Annabelle Lee.[8]

The cast and crew arrived in Cottage Grove, Oregon on May 27, 1926 with 18 freight cars full of Civil War era cannons, rebuilt passenger cars, stagecoaches, houses, wagons and laborers. The crew stayed at the Bartell Hotel in nearby Eugene, Oregon and brought three 35mm cameras with them from Los Angeles. On May 31 set construction began with the materials and regular train service in Cottage Grove ceased until the end of production.[9] One third of the film's budget was spent in Cottage Grove and 1,500 locals were hired for the film.[10]

Keaton brought 18 freight cars of props and set materials to Oregon, including Civil War era cannons.

Filming began on June 8. At first Keaton completely ignored Marion Mack on set, who said that "Buster just stuck to the job and to his little clique, and that was all" and that the crew "stopped the train when they saw a place to play baseball." Keaton eventually warmed up to Mack during production and came to like her, often playing practical jokes on her. The atmosphere on set was fun and every Sunday the cast and crew played baseball with local residents, who often said that Keaton could have been a professional in the sport.[10]

According to a United Artists press release at the time the film had 3,000 people on its payroll and cost $400 an hour to make.[10] Entertainment trade papers at the time reported rumors that the film's budget had grown to between $500,000 and $1 million, and that Keaton was out of control building real bridges and having dams constructed in order to change the depth of rivers. Producer Schenck was angry at Keaton for the film's growing costs. There were also numerous on set accidents that contributed to the film's growing budget. This included Keaton being knocked unconscious, an Assistant Director being shot in the face with a black cartridge, a train wheel running over a brakeman's foot, resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit, and the train's wood-fire engine causing numerous fires. The fires often spread to forests and farmers' haystacks, which cost production $25 per burnt stack.[11]

Keaton with lead actress Marion Mack. Keaton initially ignored Mack on set but eventually came to like her.

On July 23 Keaton shot the climactic train wreck scene in the conifer forest near Cottage Grove. The town declared a local holiday so that everyone could watch the spectacle. Between three and four thousand local residents showed up,[12] including 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. Keaton used six camera for the scene, which began four hours late and required several lengthy trial runs. The shot cost $42,000, which is the most expensive single shot in silent film history. The production company left the wreckage of The Texas 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.[13]

Another fire broke out during the filming of a large fight scene, which not only cost the production $50,000 but also forced Keaton and the crew to return to Los Angeles on August 6 due to excessive smoke in the air.[13]Heavy rains finally cleared the smoke in late August and production resumed. Shooting finally wrapped on September 18. Keaton had shot 200,000 feet of film and began a lengthy editing process for a late December release date.[14]

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; had the locomotive suffered from wheel spin, he might have been injured or killed when thrown from the rod. Shot in one take, the train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed, to which Buster, depicted as distracted and heartbroken, pretends to be oblivious.

Release and reception

The General premiered on December 31, 1926 in two small theaters in Tokyo, Japan. It was scheduled to have its US premiere at the prestigious Capitol theater in New York City on January 22, 1927,[15] but was delayed for several weeks due to the enormous hit Flesh and the Devil playing at the Capitol. It finally premiered on February 5, with the engine bell from the real General train put on display in the lobby to promote the film. It played at the Capitol for one week, making $50,992, considered average box office for a film.[16] With a final budget of $750,000, it made $474,264 in the US and was Keaton's biggest financial failure.[17]

On its initial release it fared poorly in its 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".[18] 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."[19] 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".[20] A review from Motion Picture Classic called it "a mild Civil War comedy, not up to Keaton's best standards."[21] A review from the New York Herald-Tribune called it "long and tedious - the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done." Writer Robert E. Sherwood wrote that "someone should have told Buster Keaton that it is difficult to derive laughter from the slight of men being killed in battle." One good review came from the Brooklyn Eagle.[22]


A mural commemorating the film in Cottage Grove, Oregon, where much of it was filmed in the summer of 1926.

In 1963 Keaton said that "I was more proud of that picture than any I ever made. Because I took an actual happening out of the...history books, and I told the story in detail too."[17] With changing tastes and a re-evaluation of his works, audiences and critics would later agree with him, and it is now considered a major classic of the silent era. David Robinson wrote that "every shot has the authenticity and the unassumingly correct composition of a Mathew Brady Civil War photograph." Raymond Durgnat wrote that "Perhaps The General is the most beautiful [film], with its spare, grey photography, its eye for the racy, lunging lines of the great locomotives, with their prow-like cowcatchers, with its beautifully sustained movement."[23]

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.

The decennial poll of international critics by Sight & Sound magazine ranked it #8 in 1972[24] and #10 in 1982.[25] It ranked #34 in 2012.[26] In 2002 critic Roger Ebert listed it on his top 10[27] and also on his list of The Great Movies.[28] A mural was painted on a building in Cottage Grove, OR to commemorate the film.[29] David Thomson has speculated that it is "the only memorial in the United States to Buster Keaton."[30]

U.S. film distributor Kino International released the film on Blu-ray Disc in November 2009.[31] 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.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


A 2006 screening with live music. Since its initial failure the film has become regarded as a classic and Keaton's best.

1953 version

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.[2]

90th Anniversary Music Score

In 2016, in order to celebrate both the 90th anniversary of The General and Portland, Oregon's Hollywood Theater, an original score was commissioned. It subsequently toured Oregon.[38] After its showing in Cottage Grove, Oregon, the President of the National Film Archives offered the master print of the movie for use in the making of the DVD. It is currently in production, and a worldwide tour is planned to accompany the DVD release.

See also



  1. "BFI: The General". Retrieved 2010-12-06.
  2. 1 2 Fishman, Stephen (2010). The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More (5th ed.). Nolo (retrieved via Google Books). p. 184. ISBN 1-4133-1205-5. Retrieved 2010-10-31
  3. "American Film Institute". Retrieved 13 March 2016.
  4. Tim Dirks. "The General (1927)".
  5. Meade, Marion. Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase. Ne York, NY: Da Capo Press. 1997. ISBN 0-306-80802-1. p. 161.
  6. Meade. 1997.p. 162.
  7. Meade. 1997. p. 162.
  8. Meade. 1987. pp. 162-163.
  9. Meade. 1987. p. 163.
  10. 1 2 3 Meade. 1987. p. 164.
  11. Meade. 1987.p. 165.
  12. Meade. 1987. p. 165.
  13. 1 2 Meade. 1987. p. 166.
  14. Meade. 1987. p. 169.
  15. Meade. 1987. p. 171.
  16. Meade. 1987.p. 172.
  17. 1 2 Meade. 1987. p. 173.
  18. Variety; February 9, 1927
  19. Mordaunt Hall (February 8, 1927). "The General (1927)". New York Times.
  20. Los Angeles Times; May 12, 1927
  21. Wakeman, John (1987). World Film Directors, Volume 1. New York, New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. ISBN 978-0-8242-0757-1. p. 528.
  22. Meade. 1987. p. 172.
  23. Wakeman. 1987. p. 528.
  24. "Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1972". British Film Institute. 1972. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  25. "Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1982". British Film Institute. 1982. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  26. Christie, Ian, ed. (August 1, 2012). "The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time". Sight & Sound. British Film Institute (September 2012). Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  27. "How the directors and critics voted / Roger Ebert / Top Ten". Archived from the original on May 17, 2012.
  28. Roger Ebert (May 31, 1997). "The General (1927)".
  29. Miller, Bill (August 3, 2008). "The General of Cottage Grove". Medford, OR: Mail Review. Retrieved October 12, 2016.
  30. Thomson, David. The Whole Equation. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. ISBN 0-375-40016-8. p. 382.
  31. "The General (Ultimate Edition)".
  32. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  33. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  34. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  35. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  36. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-29.
  37. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  38. "Buster Keaton's Oregon-Filmed "The General" Tours State with New Score". OPB. Retrieved September 21, 2016.



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