FILM 1480: THE GENERAL
TRIVIA: In the train crash a dummy was used as the engineer. It looked so realistic that the townspeople who had come to watch screamed in horror.
The first try at getting the cannonball to shoot out of the cannon into the cab caused the ball to shoot with too much force. To cause it to shoot into the cab of the engine correctly, Buster Keaton had to count out the grains of gunpowder with tweezers.
Based on a true incident during the Civil War. In April 1862 Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army's supply chain. At the town of Big Shanty, GA, (now known as Kennesaw, Georgia) the raiders stole a locomotive known as "The General." They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of "The General," pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called "The Yonah," which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called "The Texas," which pursued "The General" for 51 miles--in reverse. During the chase Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders. Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold all eight men). The rest of the raiders were traded in a prisoner exchange. In 1863 the survivors of the mission were awarded the first Medals of Honor (Andrews and the raiders who had been hanged later received the medal posthumously). Although this film is a comedy, the incident was later filmed by Walt Disney as a drama, The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), with Fess Parker--a Southerner, born in Texas--as Andrews.
Buster Keaton always said that this was his favorite movie.
Buster Keaton wanted to use the real locomotive "The General", which was at the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St Louis Union Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The railroad initially permitted him to do so, even providing him with a branch line to film on. However, when it became known that the film was to be a comedy, the railroad withdrew permission and Keaton had to look elsewhere.
The failure of the original copyright holder to renew the film's copyright resulted in it falling into public domain, meaning that virtually anyone could duplicate and sell a VHS/DVD copy of the film. Therefore, many of the versions of this film available on the market are either severely (and usually badly) edited and/or of extremely poor quality, having been duped from second- or third-generation (or more) copies of the film.
For the scenes with the opposing armies marching, Buster Keaton had the extras (which included Oregon National Guard troops) wear the gray uniforms of the Confederacy and march in one direction past the camera, then he had them change uniforms to the Union blues and had them march past the camera in the other direction.
The film's hard-edged look was inspired by the battlefield photographs of Matthew Brady, which captured the carnage of the Civil War in shocking detail.