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The General
File:The General poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Buster Keaton
Produced by Joseph Schenck
Buster Keaton
Written by William Pittenger (memoir)
Al Boasberg
Clyde Bruckman
Buster Keaton
Charles Henry Smith
Paul Girard Smith
Starring Buster Keaton
Marion Mack
Music by Carl Davis (1987)
Robert Israel (1995)
Joe Hisaishi (2004)
Cinematography Bert Haines
Devereaux Jennings
Editing by Buster Keaton
Sherman Kell
(both uncredited)
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) February 5, 1927
Running time 75 minutes (times vary with different versions)
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles

The General is a 1927 American silent comedy film 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.


1862 in Train engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) is in Marietta, Georgia to see one of the two loves of his life, his fiancee Annabelle Lee (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 (without explanation) because he is too valuable to the Confederacy in his present job. On leaving, he comes across 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 disembark 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 penny farthing 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 carriages 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/sleepers on the tracks. As the unusual duel continues ever 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, securing the Rock River Bridge for their essential supply trains. Gray 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, Gray manages to knock out one of the guards and free Annabelle. They escape into the woods in the pouring rain. Annabelle tells him how brave he was for risking his life to save her, unaware that he had no idea she was on the train.

The next day, Gray 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 recognised as the most expensive stunt of the silent era.[citation needed] Union soldiers try to ford the river, but Confederate artillery and infantrymen open fire on them, eventually driving them back in disarray.

As a reward for his bravery, Johnnie is enlisted in the army as a lieutenant. In the final scene, Johnnie tries to kiss his girlfriend, but is obliged to return the salutes of passing infantrymen. Gray finally uses one hand to embrace his girlfriend while using his other to blindly salute the men as they walk by.


  • Buster Keaton — Johnnie Gray
  • Marion Mack— Annabelle Lee
  • Glen Cavender — Captain Anderson
  • Jim Farley — General Thatcher
  • Frederick Vroom — A Confederate General
  • Charles Henry Smith — Annabelle's Father (as Charles Smith)
  • Frank Barnes — Annabelle's Brother
  • Joe Keaton — Union General
  • Mike Donlin — Union General
  • Tom Nawn — Union General


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 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 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 persuade the engineer to go through with it. (Note: this effect could have been achieved by having another locomotive off-camera pushing Buster's engine, with far less danger to the actor.)

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. (This story is undoubtedly apocryphal, since it would have been impractical to film closeups of actors while, in a wide shot, a bridge is collapsing.)

The production company left the wreckage in the river bed after the scene was filmed. The wrecked locomotive became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years. The metal of the train was salvaged for scrap during World War II.


The General was a box-office disaster and received 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."[1] 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."[2] 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." [3] 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, 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, going in with such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Blvd.

In a 2002 poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made, critic Roger Ebert listed it on his top 10.[4] It is also on his list of Great Movies.[5]

US film distributors Kino International released the film on Blu-ray Disc in November 2009.[6] 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

See also[]

  • Buster Keaton filmography
  • List of United States comedy films
  • List of films in the public domain



  1. Variety; February 9, 1927
  2. New York Times; February 8, 1927
  3. Los Angeles Times; May 12, 1927


  • Huntley, John (1969). Railways In The Cinema. Ian Allan. pp. 33–42. SBN 7110 0115 4. 

External links[]

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