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Buster Keaton was unquestionably the king of American silent cinema, and of all the films he created,his favorite had a Civil War theme.Almost 30 years before Walt Disney and Fess Parker fascinated television-watching kids with the story of how Union raiders stole a Confederate locomotive,Keaton made and starred in The General, an action-comedy masterpiece widely considered his finest film.

Movie critic Roger Ebert calls The General “an epic of silent comedy, one of the most expensive films of its time.”Based on the book Daring and Suffering by William Pittenger,one of the train raiders, the movie includes hundreds of extras, dangerous stunt sequences and an actual locomotive falling from a burning bridge into a gorge far below.To ensure authenticity of the final chase sequences,Keaton, a railroad enthusiast himself,acquired trains to use on a narrow gauge railroad in Oregon.This contributed to the film’s extravagant $400,000 cost.

The film is a classic of the chase genre. Keaton plays Johnny Gray,the wholesome American everyman — innocent,earnest, passionate and honest. He tries to enlist but is turned down by a Confederate recruiting officer because he is more valuable to the cause as a railroad engineer.The love of his life, besides his locomotive, is Annabelle Lee, the epitome of Southern womanhood played to haughty perfection by Marion Mack.Her father and brother have already rallied to the colors, and she declares she doesn‘t want to see Johnny again unless he is in uniform.Here Keaton accurately portrays the important role Southern women played in encouraging their men to become soldiers.

Time passes and Johnny’s beloved train is stolen by Union spies with his beloved Annabelle on board.Johnny manfully sets out after the deceitful Yankees and chases them on foot, sidecar, bicycle and finally with another locomotive,the Texas.In the best tradition of silent movie comedy,the two sides switch trains,and the chase continues in reverse.Annabelle is rescued by Johnny and rides with him during the climactic chase scenes that end with the famous shot of Texas falling into the gorge. There it rested until World War II, when it was exhumed and sold for scrap.

The real event on which The General is based had all the action but none of the comedy of the movie.The story begins with James J.Andrews, an enigmatic, 32- year-old civilian and sometime Union spy who was, ironically, a native of Virginia. He approached Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel in Shelbyville, Alabama, with a plan to burn several bridges on the rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.This, he reasoned,would enable Mitchel to advance on Chattanooga without fear of enemy reinforcements from Georgia.

Andrews approached the men of the 2nd, 21st and 33rd Ohio Infantry and asked for volunteers for a “secret and very dangerous service.” They would be operating behind enemy lines,Andrews told them, in civilian dress, and if taken they could well expect to be treated as spies and almost certainly hanged.The men were to make their way in small groups to Marietta, Ga., where they would rendezvous with Andrews and purchase tickets for various stations along the line.To succeed, Pittenger wrote,“it would be necessary to first capture the engine in a guarded camp, with soldiers standing around as spectators, and then to run it from 100 to 200 miles through the enemy’s country, to deceive or overpower all trains that should be met—a large contract for twenty men!”The men got on the northbound train on April 12, 1862.When the passengers and engineers got off the train for breakfast at Big Shanty (Kenesaw Station), Ga., the raiders sprang into action. Stopping to tear up track, cut telegraph wires, and gather cross ties for bridge burning,Andrews pushed the men to keep to a strict time schedule.

Keaton’s frantic chase of his locomotive in the film mirrored the actual pursuit of the General from Big Shanty by W.A. Fuller, the conductor of the stolen train, and Jeff Cain,its engineer.They started on foot, then found a handcar, and finally boarded an old locomotive owned by an iron company at Etowah. Near Rome, Fuller commandeered Texas and, with a contingent of armed men,set off on what history has subsequently called “the great locomotive chase.”

Just as in Keaton’s movie, the Confederates were victorious in the real locomotive chase. Barely 18 miles south of Chattanooga,General ran out of fuel.The raiders jumped from the train and dispersed. Within a week,all were captured.Andrews and seven raiders were tried and hanged in Atlanta.Of the remaining 14,eight escaped and made their way north; the remaining six were held prisoner until March 1863, when they were exchanged through a special arrangement made by Secretary of War Edwin M.Stanton.All of the raiders except Andrews, a civilian, received Medals of Honor.

Clearly,the chase scenes are at the heart of the film.They fluidly fuse action,adventure and comedy, with Keaton doing all of his own stunts on a moving locomotive. In spite of his unstinting efforts at authenticity, the enlistment scene takes place in 1861 but the “Southern Cross” flag hanging outside the enlistment office wasn’t used until 1862, and the Union infantryman who was killed by the flying sword blade was using a Springfield trapdoor rifle that was not in use until 1873. Curiously, the film was a flop, both financially and critically, when it first came out. It is now recognized as one of the great American films.


Originally published in the January 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here