Sunday, 23 February 2014

Buster Keaton - Documentarian?

The other week (Valentine's Day actually) The Wife and I watched Buster Keaton's 1926 film The General.  As many of you know, this is frequently cited as one of the best films of all time: I've seen clips of the set-pieces, but never sat down and watched the whole thing.

One of my more annoying habits is that after watching a film or tv programme, I go onto the 'net to find out more about it.  I was surprised to learn two things about the film.  The second is quite interesting, so stick with me...

The story is a relatively simple one:-

Johnnie, our hero is a railroad engineer in pre-Civil War Georgia.  He has two loves - his engine, 'The General', and a fetching air-head.  When news of the outbreak of war comes, Johnnie contrives (though a number of amusing antics) to get to the head of the queue to enlist.  He is turned down on the basis that he's more use to the South as an engineer than as a soldier (though the recruiting officer doesn't tell him or anyone else this).  Despite getting back into the queue a few times more, Johnnie remains a civilian.  The air-head and her family refuse to have anything to do with him until he's in uniform.

The war progresses, and the Yankees come up with a plan to steal a train and then take it north, destroying bridges. etc, on the way.  Having cut the route for the relief of besieged Chattanooga, they will then meet up with the Union Army with a trainload of supplies.

The train they take is the General - grabbing it while the crew and passengers are on a scheduled fag-break.  Unfortunately, the air-head has gone back to get the lighter she left in the baggage car and thus is also captured.  Johnnie sets out in pursuit, first on foot, then in a hand-cart and eventually in another train.

He arrives in the Yankee camp, rescues the air-head (he doesn't tell her that he didn't know that she was there) and takes the General back.  Eventually, he warns the Rebs of the approaching forces, wrecks the supply train and wins the day.  He is commissioned and gets his girl.

One of the most expensive effects ever...
If you want to see it, here it is courtesy of YouTube -

So far, so good...

So on looking up the film, I found that the acclaim it is held in was not felt at the time.  It was a minor flop at the box-office - one critic said is wasn't funny enough to be a comedy or thrilling enough to be an action movie (I must agree that he has a point).  It cost Keaton his independence as a film-maker, and he never recovered financially.

The second, more interesting thing, is that the whole thing is based on a true story and follows it quite closely!  This may not be news to those of you who know about the American Civil War, but it was to me.

Andrew's Raid (the Great Locomotive Chase) took place in 1862.  Most of the events depicted in the film happened, even the chase by the engineer on foot, then hand-cart then train.  Fortunately, the air-head seems to have been a Hollywood embellishment.  The raiders failed to inflict any major damage.  The were captured, executed as unlawful combatants and (most) awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

The real engineer was William Alan Fuller.  For his exploits he was indeed commissioned, into a newly formed railway militia.  He died, a Georgia hero, in 1905.

The General survives and is preserved at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia (the site of her capture).


  1. See, that's why I enjoy this blog: interesting posts. This is a corker and no, I didn't know about the back story. I know the film's reception was unenthusiastic, but many of the cinema greats and (more often) cult films were originally box office flops so it just follows (or sets?) the pattern.

    Your habit of diving on the internet after a film or programme to find out more about it is perfectly normal (well I do it anyway!). There is a much more annoying habit than 'interneting' after you've seen a film and that's doing it while the damn film's on! My wife, my daughter and my son-in-law all do it and call out interesting facts throughout the film - though thankfully not in a cinema, though the habit has spread to just about anything on TV. :O(

    1. I'd hesitate before calling something 'perfectly normal' just because you and I do it Gary!

  2. A most educational post. Thanks for posting this.

    Now to think up a way of wargaming it :)


  3. Edwin! That is a great movie! As a bit of trivia, the movie was filmed in a small town (Cottage Grove, Oregon) about 20 miles from where I spent some of my early university days at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. Members of the Oregon National Guard were used as extras playing the parts of both Federal and Confederate troops.

    Great memories!

    1. Yes, first the National Guard wore Union uniforms and were filmed charging left-to-right; then they changed to Confederate uniforms and charged the other way!

  4. You have just taught me a few new things. The museum and the train are not that far away from my house. I have been meaning to go for quite some time. Now, more so. Thanks.

    1. Oh do report back on your blog. I'm sure the true story is much better than the fiction.

      And I didn't even mention the Supreme Court case about ownership of the General!

  5. How incredibly interesting. What a great post.

  6. Buster Keaton was an incredible physical comic, all the more so since he had to do the stunts for real.

    Thanks for sharing the back story of the movie; it's incredible the lengths early filmmakers had to go to to achieve the desired effects!

  7. Well I never! Like you, I don't recall actually sitting down and watching the whole thing, but I had formed a similar opinion as to its content - not nearly as funny as everyone made out! Now armed with this additional knowledge, I feel obliged to give it another go!

  8. A great post. Thanks for the links to The General, I have always wanted to watch this film.
    BK spent his career toiling in the shadow of Chaplin, it would seem - perhaps because he was not as manic as CC and had a darker side. Perhaps that's why the playwright Samuel Beckett was a fan of Keaton, and even got Keaton to star in a film late in his life - something else I've always wanted to watch.
    Again, thanks for this post. I do wish people would stop putting C19th trains on their blogs, I now want one for my ACW collection. Annoying. :)

  9. Thank you for the post. I am lucky that were I live (burbs west of Philadelphia) we have several silent film festivals each year and I saw The General two years ago with an accompany organ.

    Buster Keaton is one of my favorite actors (along with Harold Lloyd). He also did an excellent episode of the Twilight Zone - Once Upon a Time (1961).


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