This will be my first attempt to review a silent film. The General (1926) is the movie that set the bar for all future train movies. When you watched Indiana Jones riding in mine car in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) they were imitating rail action that was shown in The General (1926). While this movie is primarily a comedy it is based on action that really occurred during the American Civil War. This one unlike the next movie I will cover is told from the Confederate view and the battle flag is prominently displayed. I’m not sure this version could be made today.
James J. Andrews, a civilian with railroad experience proposed a scheme to steal a Confederate train and drive it not destroying rails, telegraphs, and bridges. The plan called for Andrews, another civilian, and 22 soldiers from Ohio units to head south in civilian clothes to steal a train. The Union Army would move south to capture Huntsville, Alabama and then move on to the important rail and river hub at Chattanooga. The commander felt if he could block Confederate reinforcements from coming north by rail he could take the city.
The target of the raid was the Western and Atlantic Railroad. All of the men, save two, made it to the train depot at Big Shanty, which is now named Kennesaw, Georgia. On April 12th, 1862, Andrews and his crew hijacked the locomotive by the name of The General, its tender, and the first car. William Allen Fuller, the train’s conductor, and two other men began chasing the train on foot. Finally they found a handcar, you know those thing that two men pump to make it go down the railroad track. After over 15 miles, Fuller found a small locomotive named Yonah. Fuller used that until he found a larger locomotive at Kingston, Georgia. A few miles south of Adairsville, Georgia, Andrews and his men had destroyed a section of track. Fuller and his group continued on foot until they found a southbound locomotive by the name of Texas. He chased the other train 51 miles in reverse.
As a result of the military attack a large number of trains were moving south. When Andrews’ train was stopped by south moving trains and they had to sit on a side track until they passed. This allowed Fuller to close the gap as he picked up soldiers to help along the way. Just north of Ringgold, Georgia and its’ famous tunnel The General ran out of steam. The raiders had covered 87 miles and were less than 20 miles from Chattanooga. The raiders scatter but were all caught including the two that never made it to the raid.
Andrews and the other civilian were tried as spies and sentenced to hang. All of the military men were tried in military courts. Seven of the soldiers were hanged as were the two civilians. They botched Andrews hanging and his feet touched the ground resulting in a slow death. Eight of the prisoners escaped and six more were released in prisoner exchanges. These military men were given the first Medal of Honor but the two civilians were not eligible.
Buster Keaton, one of the greatest actors of the silent film era, and people will fight you about this. Keaton played the role of the Engineer of The General – Johnnie Gray. I can see a lot of thought went into that name, as they could have called him Johnny Reb instead.
Buster Keaton was born into an acting family. He spent his young working in the family vaudeville act and was associated with Harry Houdini, W.C. Fields, George M. Cohan, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. At around 6 months of age he fell down a flight of starts and Houdini gave him the nickname “Buster.” He perfected his stone face during the years with the family act.
By the age of 21, Buster’s father was firmly in the grips of alcoholism and the act broke-up. In 1917, Buster met an actor named Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who cast Keaton in his first film, The Butcher Boy (1917). Keaton made 15 two-reel films with Arbuckle and still found time to serve for 10 months in France as a part of the US Army 40th Infantry Division. By 1921, Keaton was writing, directing, and staring in his own films. Arbuckle was a major star as well but in 1921, when a young actress, Virginia Rappe, died following a party but not before she accused Arbuckle of rape. He was tried three time, with two hung juries, and finally a not-guilty. This stopped Arbuckle’s career for a time but Keaton stayed loyal to his friend. After more than a decade directing under an assumed name, Arbuckle signed a contract to make a comeback but died that night at the age of 46.
Perhaps Buster Keaton’s best film was The General (1926). With so many great films under his belt Keaton reluctantly signed with MGM. The studio wanted to make movies following a proven formula. This put them and Keaton on a collision course. The film made under these conditions was The Cameraman (1928) and is considered one of his best films. However, Keaton was drink, disregarding schedules, and fighting with studio heads. By 1932, he was released and had to survive on bit parts at a fraction of his previous salary.
By 1947, his career was beginning to rebound. Actor James Mason found a cache of presumed lost Keaton films and got him more attention. Keaton had a small but memorable role in Sunset Blvd. (1950) as part of the waxworks. He appeared in Limelight (1952) with Charlie Chaplin. In 1960, he was given an honorary Oscar for his body of work. Sadly or happily, the first movie I remember Keaton from are Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). His final film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) which was released after his death.
Marion Mack played the role of Johnny Gray’s true love, Annabelle Lee. Mack began making movies in 1921 and with a long hiatus he last in 1940. However, she is better known as a screenwriter and part of a production team with her husband Lewis Lewyn. The General (1926) took six months to shoot and was physically demanding. Following this movie she basically gave up acting and worked as a screenwriter. In 1969, following a revival of The General (1926) she toured with the movie giving lectures and interviews about her work with Buster Keaton.
Train engineer, Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) drives The Western & Atlantic Flyer pulled by the locomotive The General into Marietta, Georgia. As he oils the train, two boys watch him. Johnnie goes to see his true love Annabelle (Marion Mack). The boys follow him into the house and he has to trick them into leaving. Annabelle’s brother (Frank Barnes) tells them that war has broken out. The brother and the father (Charles Smith) go to enlist in the Confederate Army.
Annabelle insists that Johnnie enlist as well. Johnnie is so excited after his goodbye kiss that he takes a shortcut and vaults the counter to be first in line. When they find out that Johnnie is a railroad engineer they refuse to accept his enlistment saying he will be move valuable to the south running his train. He tries two more times but is finally kicked out. Outside he runs into Annabelle’s father and brother but he refuses to try again. The two men tell Annabelle that Johnnie never tried to enlist. She says she will not speak to him until he is in uniform. Dejected, he sits on the engine siderod. The train wheels make three revolutions before he realizes the train is moving.
A year later in spring 1862, Gen. Thatcher (Jim Farley) and his spy Capt. Anderson (Glen Cavender) plan to steal a train at Big Shanty, Georgia and drive it north destroying track, bridges, and telegraph lines as they go. At Marietta, Annabelle gets on the train to visit her father. By change Johnnie is driving the train. She flaunts her brother’s medals for Johnnie to sees. When the train stops at Big Shanty for breakfast, Anderson and his men get off the train. Annabelle goes to the boxcar to get money out of her trunk. Anderson’s men uncouple disconnect the boxcar and coaches from the engine and the tender. The Yankee’s discover Annabelle and take her along so she won’t warn the Confederates. The Yankees pull away with the train. When Johnnie sees his train leaving he runs down the track on foot.
Johnnie finds a handcar and continues his pursuit. The car hits a section of rail that the Yankees have removed and the cart crashes down the hill. Johnnie sees a big wheel bicycle and vaults onto the seat. He has a bumpy ride along the tracks.
When the stolen train gets to Kingston, Georgia, the engine Texas is waiting on a side track. Anderson changes into a rebel uniform. With the General already gone Johnnie makes it into Kingston. He shouts for help and a group of soldiers get on a flatcar. Johnnie pulls the pin behind the flatcar and takes off. The flatcar was not connected to the engine and is left behind.
Johnnie sees a rail mounted mortar on a side track. He attaches it to his engine. About the same time the spies are adding water to their engine. You know from one of those water towers like the Petticoat Junction girls and their dog use to swim in. The yanks see Johnnie coming and head out without shutting the water off. Johnnie gets an unexpected bath. Johnnie goes back to the mortar. He adds a small handful of powder, some wadding, and the giant mortar round. The mortar fires and the round ends up on the engine floor. Johnnie roles it out the side and goes to load another round. As he begins the mortar he rolled out explodes. This time he puts all the powder in before he load. He lights the fuse and hurries forward. He gets his foot stuck in the coupling bar and it begins hitting the rail ties. This bumping makes the mortar fall and point straight towards the engine. Johnnie finally gets untangles and climbs all the way forward to the cowcatcher. The two trains go into an S-curve and the mortar fires and explodes just behind the stolen train. The spies release the last boxcar to try and slow Johnnie.
Johnnie pushes the boxcar until he can switch it to a sidetrack. He is looking away as the train rolls back onto the main track in front of him. He doesn’t know where it came from. He looks away again and does not see the box car hit a timber that the spies have thrown out. When he looks back he does not know where the boxcar has gone.
He sees the timbers on the track and runs forward to the cowcatcher where he picks up the first timber. In what is an amazing stunt he tosses the timber he is holding and flips another off of the tracks. The Yankees move Annabelle to the engine and throw a switch sending Johnnie onto a side track. He stops the train in time and head back to main track. The Yanks set the final boxcar on fire and leave it in a covered bridge. Johnnie pushes the burning car onto a sidetrack. Johnnie is busy chopping wood as the Confederate Army retreats followed by a pursuing Union Army. He finally sees and hides on the floor of the train.
The men on the General see that there is only one man on the Texas when they pass over a trestle. Johnnie stops his train and hides in the woods where naturally it starts to rain. When night falls, Johnnie breaks into a house to steal food. A group of Union officers come in and discuss their plan to take a supply train across the Rock River Bridge so they can attack the Confederates in the morning. Johnnie sees the tied up Annabelle being locked in a room in the house. When the officer leave Johnnie knocks out two soldiers and steals a uniform. He takes Annabelle to the woods and they have an encounter with a bear and a bear trap. He keeps losing Annabelle so they decide to stay put until sunup.
In the morning Johnnie sees the General. He dumps a bag of military clothes and places Annabelle in the bag. She uncouples the train from the engine. He places her in the boxcar and cringes as crates and barrels are tossed in after her. He knocks out the officer in charge and speeds away going south. Just outside of town he pulls down a telegraph line and chops through the boxcar wall. He finds Annabelle when he steps on her.
Johnnie stops to load fence rails for firewood but they keep flying over the car or knocking out the log thrown prior. The Yankees are following in the Texas. Another Union train joins the chase as well. Annabelle takes a rope and ties it across the track to two small trees. When she proudly shows Johnnie what she had done he mocks her. When the Texas hits the small trap the men are pinned to the engine and they are forces to stop and untangle the mess.
Johnnie chops out the back wall of the last boxcar and drops it on the track forcing the Texas to stop. He throws all of the cargo onto the track as well. Johnnie stops for water and Annabelle is knocked down by the flow. When they start again they leave the valve open and it drenches the Union officer on the trains behind them. Annabelle is feeding the furnace but rejects wood because it has a hole in it. She also takes time to sweep the train clean.
The Texas catches up and couples to the boxcar on the General. Johnnie uncouples the boxcar. The Texas pushes it onto a side track and back onto the main track where it is hit by the second train sending the soldiers flying.
Johnnie attaches a chain to a switch and Annabelle moves the train forward bending the track. However she can’t stop the train so Johnnie runs downhill after her. When he get to the bottom she reverses and he has to run uphill to catch her. The broken switch sends the two Union trains onto an elevated side track where they crash again and the General gets away.
Johnnie puts the end of a fence rail in the firebox. He stops on the Rock River Bridge where he piles wood from the tender in the middle of the bridge. He takes the kerosene from the headlamp and pours it on the woodpile. Annabelle kicks the flaming log out and Johnnie is trapped on the other side of fire. She attempts to move the train backwards but goes forward just as Johnnie jumps. He falls through a hole in the bridge into the water below. Back in route Johnnie hails a Confederate picket and the guard fires at him. Annabelle reminds him to change out of the Union uniform into the Confederate on Anderson left on the train.
In town Johnnie warns the Confederate headquarters of the attack. He and Annabelle are caught in a stampede of the Confederate Army moving forward. Annabelle goes to her wounded father while Johnnie straps on a sword and pistol and follows the Army. Back at the bent switch the Yank officers are still trying to bend the rail. A locomotive engineer walks up and quickly fixes it with an axe.
The Union trains reach the burning Rock River Bridge at the same time as the Union army arrives. A Union General steps forward and tells the engineer to drive the Texas across as the bridge is not that badly burned. The bridge collapse and the train falls into the river. The Union General gives the oh-crap face.
The Union Army begins to cross the river but is surprised by the attacking Confederates. Johnnie stands by an officer aping his movements. He finally goes to a cannon battery and begins to issue command. As he talks to each man, that man is shot by a Union sharpshooter. Finally Johnnie swings his sword and blade flies off killing the sharpshooter. Johnnie yanks the lanyard so hard the cannon fires straight up. He runs but the ball lands on a dam. The rushing water forces the Yankees to retreat. Johnnie orders another gun crew to fire on the Union officer and the Texas. The Texas derails and the Confederates capture the supply train. Johnnie save a battle flag and steps on an officer that was observing as he waves it on the cliff top.
Johnnie marches into town at the head of the victorious Confederate Army but peels off to his train. He finds the Union officer that he knocked out waking up and takes the prisoner to the headquarters. After he tells the story to the Confederate general he is told to take off the uniform. He is then given the coat of an officer and the surrendered sword of the enemy. He does a pose for Annabelle and then is enlisted as an officer.
Johnnie and Annabelle go to the General and sit on the siderod. He begins kissing her but has to salute passing enlisted men. As more come by he turns Annabelle so he can kiss her while he continues to salute.
World-Famous Short Summary – Train moves though Indian territory
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Beware the moors