The General is a cinematic marvel. If you’re under any illusion the Buster Keaton was merely a slapstick comedian, see it now. As a pure filmmaker, Keaton was fully the equal of Eisenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin, his three great Soviet contemporaries. Nevertheless, to compare The General to October, A Man With a Movie Camera, or The End of St. Petersburg is understand once and for all the superiority of early Soviet cinema to anything that ever came out of Hollywood. At the same time Eisenstein, Vertov and Pudovkin were making revolutionary films about smashing Russian feudalism, and about the liberation of the working-class, Buster Keaton had thoughtlessly fallen into the reactionary politics of the Neo-Confederate south.
The General is loosely based on “The Great Locomotive Chase,” an incident that took place during the early years of the United States Civil War. On April 12, 1862, a group of about twenty Union soldiers led by a Kentucky civilian named James J. Andrews crossed over into Confederate territory near the present day Kennesaw, Georgia, and hijacked a Western and Atlantic Railroad Company called “The General.” Their plan, to tear up the railway lines between Atlanta and Chattanooga, made perfect sense from a military perspective. The United States Civil War was the first conflict in history where both sides depended on railroads. Cutting the supply lines from Atlanta to Chattanooga would have been a devastating blow to the Confederates in the west, where the had already lost the Battle of Shiloh only a week earlier. It failed, of course. Twenty men were pathetically inadequate to wreck several hundred miles of railway behind enemy lines. What’s more, William Allen Fuller, the General’s conductor, managed to chase Andrews and his men for over eighty miles, first by foot, by handcar, and finally by the Yonah, a locomotive he managed to commandeer near the present day site of Canton, Georgia, and the Texas, yet another locomotive, he found, along with twelve Confederate soldiers, near Calhoun. His determined pursuit kept them from doing even the small amount of damage twenty men could have done had they been let unmolested. After the General ran out of fuel 18 miles short of Chattanooga, Andrews and his men scattered, attempting to get back to Union lines, but all of them were eventually captured, and Andrews himself, being a civilian, was hanged as a spy.
Even if Andrews and his men failed to cut the railway lines between Marietta and Chattanooga, however, The Great Locomotive Chase had been an enormous psychological blow to the south, a foreshadowing of Grierson’s Raid much later in the war, as well as Sherman’s March Through Georgia. As a civilian, Andrews wasn’t eligible for the Congressional Medal of Honor, an award given posthumously to several of his men, but from a Union perspective he and his men were obviously heroes. The General, by contrast, comes down squarely on the side of the Confederates. Buster Keaton, who plays “Johnnie Gray,” a loosely fictionalized version of William Fuller, portrays Andrews and his men as buffoons, the Keystone Cops of the Union Army. Unlike the real James J. Andrews and his men they do briefly succeed in turning the tide of the war around Chattanooga, but in the process of stealing The General, they accidentally kidnap Annabel Lee, Gray’s one time girlfriend who had dumped him early in the film because she had believed him a coward unwilling to enlist in the Confederate Army. This gives Keaton the opportunity to play Fuller not only as a determined Confederate patriot, but as a romantic hero willing to risk everything to rescue his beloved. By the end of The General, Gray has won back the love of Annabel Lee. He has also accidentally spied on a Union General and his staff planning a surprise attack against the Confederates, who had left their flank exposed during a retreat. After a second chase from Chattanooga back to Marietta, this time with the Yankees in hot pursuit of Gray, he manages to reach Confederate lines. The Confederate Army, now apprised of the Union Army’s plans, turn the tide of what would have been a losing battle and drive the Yankees out of Georgia back towards Chattanooga.
It’s all incredibly entertaining. The General set the template for almost every chase movie put out by Hollywood in the past 75 years. Keaton pretty much invented the whole template. The train crash, the only good scene in the insufferably dull 1990s film The Fugitive, for example, is lifted almost whole cloth from The General. A hilarious scene where Keaton is oblivious to the retreating Confederates and the advancing Unionists, to the way he’s falling behind enemy lines, is a masterpiece of silent film comedy. Keaton is not a great stunt man and physical comedian. He’s a great cinematographer. Filmed in Cottage Grove Oregon, The General manages to capture the way northern Georgia would have looked in the 1860s. Gone With the Wind, by contrast, looks like an artificial stage production. Most of the Confederacy during the Civil War was still basically the frontier. Keaton’s portrayal of the early railway system, in turn, is almost as good. Determined to be as authentic as possible, Keaton chose to film on location in Cottage Grove mainly because it had the same kind of “narrow gauge” railway the Confederates would have been using in April of 1862. For anybody accustomed to CGI and “special effects” The General will be a revelation. This is real cinema, not a video game put up on the big screen.
The problem with Keaton’s film isn’t so much that he plays the Yankees as buffoons and recasts William Fuller as a romantic hero. The Yankees aren’t villains so much as stock comic figures you’d find in any vaudeville show. The real life William Fuller was quite obviously a brave, inventive man who chased a raiding party of twenty men by himself. Keaton’s insertion of Annabel Lee as the reason for the pursuit was a stroke of genius. The problem is inherent in the reason Keaton, a northerner, gave for casting himself as a Southerner in the first place. Keaton chose to tell the story from the point of view of The South, we learn in a documentary called A Hard Act to Follow, because it would have been “punching down” (to use the modern term) to make fun of the “side that lost the war.” Keaton, in other words, like D.W. Griffith and Margaret Mitchell, bought into the myth of southern white victim hood, of the slave power as the underdog. He erases slavery from his narrative and black people from the history of the Civil War. In that respect, The General is even worse than Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind, both of which have toxic, racist views of blacks, but neither of which deny their existence. I’ve watched The General twice and kept a sharp eye out for the sight of even one black extra. There are none to be scene.
“Well so what?” I can here you say. “Watch the movie Keaton made, not the one you’d like him to have made.” Better yet, make a film about The Great Locomotive Chase yourself. That way you can make the Yankees the heros and include all the oppressed and beaten down slaves you want. You might be right, and maybe I’ll do that some day. History would bear me out. Not everybody in James J. Andrews’ raiding party, in fact, got captured by the Confederates. Not only did eight men escape back to Union lines. According to William Pittenger, one of the surviving members of James’ raiding party, they did it with the help of “union sympathizers and escaped slaves.”
Writing about the exploit, Corporal William Pittenger said that the remaining raiders worried about also being executed. They attempted to escape and eight succeeded. Traveling for hundreds of miles in pairs, they all made it back safely to Union lines, including two who were aided by slaves and Union sympathizers and two who floated down the Chattahoochee River until they were rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset. The remaining six were held as prisoners of war and exchanged for Confederate prisoners on March 17, 1863.
That’s the movie that would have gotten made by Keaton’s Soviet contemporaries and the great American Civil War film we’ll probably never get to see.