The General, released in 1927, is a classic silent film directed by and starring Buster Keaton, one of the major comic filmmakers of the silent era. It was one of several films loosely based on the Andrews Raid of 1862, a key event of the Civil War (1861-65) in Georgia.
On April 12, 1862, Union raiders staged a daring seizure of a Confederate train pulled by the General, a locomotive traveling north from Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw, in Cobb County) toward Chattanooga, Tennessee. The raiders’ dramatic trek toward Union lines was marred by setbacks; they ultimately abandoned the train and were captured by Confederate forces. Eight of their number, including leader James J. Andrews, were executed.
Earlier Cinematic Precedents
There were several antecedents to The General. In 1903 Edison Studios, established by inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison, produced The Great Train Robbery, a short film that set a new standard for cinematography. Approximately twelve minutes in length, the film depicts a train robbery and a gunfight in which several of the robbers are killed. The Great Train Robbery is widely remembered for its closing scene, in which one of the robbers fires his pistol directly at the camera.
In 1911 the Kalem Company produced Railroad Raiders of ’62. This film, also about twelve minutes in length, does not make an overt reference to the Andrews Raid but is clearly based on that event. As the plot unfolds, the audience sees a woman waving frantically to stop a Confederate train, before she faints alongside the tracks. When the train crew stops to help her, they are overpowered by a group of raiders—including the “woman,” who turns out to be a man in disguise. The Confederates pursue the raiders, first on a handcar and then by locomotive, dealing with torn-up rails along the way. The chase ends with gunfire, and the raiders are either shot dead or burned alive when the Confederates set fire to a barn in which they are hiding. Edison’s film clearly influenced the Railroad Raiders of ’62, but the Kalem Company nonetheless took some pains to incorporate elements of the actual Andrews Raid into the script.
Between November 1914 and February 1917, Kalem produced another antecedent to The General, a serial entitled The Hazards of Helen. One of the longest serialized films in the history of cinema, with 119 episodes totaling more than twenty-three hours, The Hazards of Helen includes a reformatted version of Railroad Raiders of ’62, which was released in 1915 as episode number 19. The episodes depict the ongoing story of Helen (played by four different actresses), who is always involved in some kind of escapade, such as chasing train robbers or preventing a train wreck. Helen is sometimes rescued by a man, but most of the time she manages to extricate herself, unaided, from dangerous situations.
Along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton is remembered as one of the great comedic geniuses in the history of early American film. The General is perhaps Keaton’s best work and continues to garner the most recognition from present-day audiences. It was one of the most expensive films produced during the silent era, and despite its popularity with audiences, Keaton made very little money from the picture, owing in part to his meticulous production standards, as well as to his naivete in matters of studio finances.
In the film, Keaton portrays Georgia native Johnnie Gray, a train engineer with similarities to the real-life train conductor William Fuller. Keaton selected Marion Mack to portray his erstwhile fiancée, Annabelle Lee, and cast his own father, Joe Keaton, as a Union general. Keaton filmed most of the movie in Oregon during the summer and fall of 1926. Unlike the later Walt Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Keaton adopted a distinctly Southern perspective for The General.
While the film is clearly based on the Andrews Raid, it is wildly inaccurate and full of improbable scenes, included primarily for comic effect. Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, attempts repeatedly to join the Confederate military but is turned down because he is more valuable as a locomotive engineer. His fiancée and her father misinterpret the situation and attribute his continued civilian status to cowardice. Neither will be seen in public with such a man. When Union spies steal the General in Marietta (one of several actual place names incorporated into the narrative), Annabelle Lee is on board the train. Johnnie Gray, apparently motivated by devotion to his fiancée and not to the Confederacy, pursues the General in a second locomotive, the Texas. As the chase proceeds, the pursuer ultimately becomes the pursued, as Johnnie Gray abandons his train, falls down an embankment, and reboards the locomotive at a lower elevation.
The carefully choreographed movements of the train chase sequence occupy only a small portion of the film. Johnnie Gray later rescues Annabelle Lee from the headquarters of a Union general, fends off an attack by a bear, and takes back his locomotive from the middle of a Union encampment (a reversal of the Andrews theft at Big Shanty). He is then chased back to Confederate lines (setting a bridge on fire in the process), where he warns the Confederate commander of an impending Union attack, inadvertently takes part in a battle, saves the day, captures a Union general, and is given a commission in the Confederate army, thus winning the undying love of Annabelle Lee.
In assessing The General, it is important to note that the film’s most obvious factual inaccuracies involve reversals of the actual course of events. In much the same way that the Redeemers (former Confederates) were able to reverse public perceptions of what had happened in the South during Reconstruction and the decades of the late 1800s, the film establishes the southerner as the focus of all the action and turns him into the hero.
One of twelve films made by Buster Keaton Productions between 1921 and 1928, The General is an odd mix of Keaton’s trademark physical—often slapstick—comedy and action adventure, but it is grounded far more fully in historic circumstances than any other of his films. Critics have long recognized the work as Keaton’s crowning cinematic achievement. The General was added in 2007 to the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time, ranked at number 18. Only one other silent film—Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931)—is ranked higher.