A Fun Civil War Movie: The General

We know the great Civil War movies, but how about one that is both great and really fun? The General starring and directed by Buster Keaton is a 1927 silent film (79 minutes). Keaton plays sad-sack little engineer, Johnny Gray, who loves two things: his big steam locomotive, the General, and the beautiful Annabelle Lee.

War erupts. Johnny longs to enlist for the South and impress his girl. The recruiting officer rejects him as too valuable in his current position but does not tell anyone that. To Annabelle’s disgust, a dejected Johnny is mistakenly branded a coward.

Yankee spies steal the locomotive and the girl. Johnny sets off after them single-handedly, straight through enemy lines, on a fanatical chase, doing almost everything wrong but getting it all right. After many harrowing adventures, he recovers the General and gets the girl, winning a battle in the process. Johnny is acclaimed a hero and presented with a lieutenant’s uniform and sword. 

The story is a takeoff on the Great Locomotive Chase, otherwise known as Andrews’ Raid. On April 12, 1862, civilian scout James J. Andrews led a group of Union Army volunteers on a raid in northern Georgia on the Western and Atlantic Railroad (W&A), a vital link between Atlanta and Chattanooga. They commandeered the General at Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) and fled northward, sabotaging the line and cutting telegraph wires as they went.

Confederate forces pursued for 87 miles, first on foot, and then on a succession of locomotives, including the Texas. The General ran low on fuel and came to a halt north of Ringold where Andrews and his raiders attempted to flee through the woods. Confederates captured and executed some, including Andrews, while others escaped. Survivors were the first to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the U. S. Congress. As a civilian, Andrews was not eligible.

A 1956 Walt Disney production, The Great Locomotive Chase starring Fess Parker of Davy Crockett TV fame, is not a great film but fairly accurate and good for kids. Both screenplays were based on the book of the same name by William Pittenger, the real engineer involved.

Don’t think a silent film won’t hold your attention. The General was one of the most expensive films of its time. It features racing action, outlandish stunt work and sight gags, and an inventive storyline based on real events. Observe the working of real period locomotives, which are stars themselves. Acting in a silent film is also fun to watch—hammier than talkies, but then so much must be expressed by expression.

All the actors are good, but Keaton is superb in his signature style as the deadpan “Great Stone Face.” He conveys more thoughts and emotion with eyes and body than all but the very best actors. Watch his eyes as he stares out from the racing engine to see a loose boxcar that was behind him suddenly appear in front.

Or when he loads a giant flatcar mortar and aims it at the fleeing General, only to find the jarring of his speeding Texas has re-pointed it right at him. He’s just a regular guy doing the best he can in extraordinary circumstances and you’re right there, cheering him on all the way. Keaton’s acting seems more lasting than his more famous contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

We are jaded by today’s wowzie special effects, so keep in mind that every death-defying stunt Keaton performs with acrobatic skill and grace is wholly real. In one scene for example, he sits on the cowcatcher of the speeding Texas with a big railroad tie in his arms. Union men throw another tie onto the tracks in front, and Keaton, with perfect aim and timing, knocks the second off by throwing the first. You wonder how he did that and how many takes it took.

The battle is well done for the time. Hundreds of extras from the Oregon town near the production site were filmed charging one way in Union uniforms and then the other in Confederate uniforms. The climactic scene is the fiery end of a real locomotive, not faked and spectacularly staged. The broken hulk remained in place for years as a tourist attraction.

Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 92 and says it is “brilliantly filmed and fueled with classic physical comedy, The General captures Buster Keaton at his timeless best.” With the advent of sound, Keaton’s career stalled and he struggled in obscurity before being rediscovered late in life. The General was not a financial success when released, but today is regarded as a masterpiece.

The General

Both the General and the Texas are 4-4-0 “American” type steam locomotives built in the 1850s. They are still around, now restored to near original configuration.

The General is preserved at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Texas is at the Atlanta History Center.

The General (the movie) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and in various DVD editions. I watched the Amazon version. Would have preferred a digitally remastered and enhanced copy, but the picture quality was good enough on a 73-inch screen, and it featured the original organ score, which I recommend.

See customer comments under the streaming version on Amazon for more information on DVDs editions. Some customers don’t like more recent orchestral scores on DVD. The Wikipedia entry has good background information.

If you fancy yourself a Civil War film connoisseur or just want a fun movie, The General is a must see.

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