The General is a 1927 silent comedy released by United Artists based upon the Great Locomotive Chase from 1862. Buster Keaton starred in the film and co-directed it with Clyde Bruckman. It was adapted by Al Boasberg, Bruckman, Keaton, Charles Henry Smith (uncredited) and Paul Girard Smith (uncredited) from the memoir The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger. The film was a box-office disaster at its original release, but is now considered by critics as one of the greatest films ever made.
The plot turns on a chase between two locomotives and a railroad worker, played by Keaton, initially on a handcar and later on another locomotive. Although played for laughs in the film, many of the events actually occurred in a chase through Georgia and Tennessee between trains pulled by locomotives named The General and The Texas (see Great Locomotive Chase for more details on the actual event). The event was also the subject of the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase.
One of the most dangerous stunts occurred when Buster sat on one of the side rods, which connect the drivers of the locomotive. In the film the train starts gently and gradually picks up speed as it enters a shed. The visual effect of the forlorn Buster as the motion of the side rod moves him gently up and down is very poignant. But in real life, it is nearly impossible for any engineer to start any train moving this precisely. If he had not accelerated by exactly the correct amount, the rods would have moved so fast as to send Buster flying, certainly injuring or killing him. The story goes that it took considerable persuasion on his part to convince the engineer to go through with it.
The climax of the film includes a spectacular moment where a bridge (sabotaged by Johnnie) collapses as a railroad train crosses it (compare The Bridge on the River Kwai). Keaton filmed the bridge collapse in the conifer forest around the town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, using 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. They all dressed up in Union uniforms and were filmed going left-to-right before changing into Confederate uniforms and were filmed going right-to-left. He did not tell the actor portraying the Northern commanding officer what to expect: his look of total shock was genuine.
The production company left the wreckage after the scene was filmed, so they left the wrecked locomotive in the river bed, where it became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years. The metal of the train was salvaged for scrap during World War II.
The film was ranked #18 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) and 100 Years... 100 Laughs. In 1989, The General was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". It made it into the registry in the first year it was enacted, going in with such films as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and Sunset Blvd.
In a 2002 poll of critics and filmmakers on the best films ever made, critic Roger Ebert listed it on his top 10. It is also on his list of Great Movies.