The General

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Directors: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
Writers: Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman

  • Buster Keaton — Johnnie Gray, engineer
  • Glen Cavender — Union Captain Anderson, raid chief
  • Marion Mack — Annabelle Lee
  • Frederick Vroom — Confederate general
United Artists: 1926
sepia tinted, silent; 75 minutes
January 2007


Railroad Trestle thru Timberbelt, Oregon (small) The General is widely considered to be Buster Keaton's finest movie, a masterpiece; and I agree. Keaton is my favorite of all the silent-era film comedians, and in The General he combines serious purpose, great attention to detail, and many fine comedic elements. In this perfect mixture it resembles Charlie Chaplin's later The Great Dictator.

The source of The General is a real event of the American Civil War, the Union's Andrews Raid south into Confederate Georgia in April 1862. It's a small but thrilling mini-campaign whose history is told in a near-contemporary book by one of the participants, William Pittenger, variously titled: Daring and Suffering, or The Great Locomotive Chase, or In Pursuit of the General. Being a Civil War buff myself, and having read with fascination Pittenger's book long before I saw the movie, I truly appreciate Keaton's painstaking care.

Based on these true events, the action is compelling and almost non-stop. The film's romance fits well, and the Army details — North and South — all contribute to the effect. The humor leavens the mixture without detracting from the high-speed drama, no easy feat.

The movie shines for its vivid detail of the Civil War era, especially of course the locomotive chase and the railroad itself with its assorted rolling stock: engines, boxcars, flatcar, handcar; and imaginative use of track layout and appurtenances such as a water tower. Keaton worked hard to make his movie as authentic as possible:

I went to the original location, from Atlanta, Georgia, up to Chattanooga ... The railroad tracks I couldn't use at all, because the Civil War trains were narrow-gauge. ... so I went to Oregon. And in Oregon, the whole state is honey-combed with narrow-gauge railways for all the lumber mills. So we got the rolling equipment, wheels and trucks, and we built the freight train and our passenger train, and we remodeled three locomotives. Luckily, the engines working on these lumber camps were all so doggone old that it was an easy job ...
Buster Keaton, quoted in
Tom Dardis
Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down

Keaton's biographer Dardis provides some of the production background, and relates how much the film critics of the day disliked The General. It was an expensive film to make, and a financial disaster. Fortunately critical and popular opinion eventually caught up with the great merits of the film.

The General locomotive itself still exists, and may be visited at the Kennesaw Civil War Museum in Georgia.


© 2007 Robert Wilfred Franson

Buster Keaton's Civil War comedy The General
remains the artistic high mark of his career,
and a film that continues to astonish viewers today. ...

Robert James
WHO Won?!?
An Irreverent Look at the Oscars: 1927-1943 (Volume 1)  2012

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