The General is an American silent comedy film released by United Artists inspired by the Great Locomotive Chase, which happened in 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, an adventure-epic classic made toward the end of the silent era, received both poor reviews by critics (it was considered tedious and disappointing) and weak box-office results (about a half million dollars domestically, and approximately one million worldwide) at its original release, but is now considered by critics as one of the greatest films ever made.
Western & Atlantic Railroad train engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) is in Marietta, Georgia to see one of the two loves of his life, his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack)—the other being his locomotive, The General—when the American Civil War breaks out. He hurries to be first in line to sign up with the Confederate Army, but is rejected because he is too valuable in his present job; unfortunately, Johnny is not told this reason and is forcibly ejected from the office when he tries to enlist surreptitiously. On leaving, he runs into Annabelle’s father and brother, who beckon to him to join them in line, but he sadly walks away, giving them the impression that he does not want to enlist. Annabelle coldly informs Johnnie that she will not speak to him again until he is in uniform.
A year passes, and Annabelle receives word that her father has been wounded. She travels north on the General to see him but still wants nothing to do with Johnnie. When the train makes a stop, the passengers detrain for a quick meal. As planned, Union spies led by Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender) use the opportunity to steal the train. Annabelle becomes an inadvertent prisoner. Johnnie gives chase, first on foot, then by handcar and boneshaker bicycle, before reaching a station in Chattanooga. He alerts the army detachment there, which boards another train to give chase, with Johnnie manning the locomotive, the Texas. However, the flatcars are not hooked up to the engine, and the troops are left behind. By the time Johnnie realizes he is alone, it is too late to turn back.
The Union agents try a variety of methods to shake their dogged pursuer (convinced he is accompanied by Confederate soldiers), including disconnecting their trailing car and dropping railroad ties on the tracks. As the unusual duel continues northward, the Confederate Army of Tennessee is ordered to retreat and the Northern army advances in its wake. Johnnie finally notices he is surrounded by Union soldiers and the hijackers see that Johnnie is by himself. Johnnie stops his locomotive and runs into the forest to hide….
Directed by Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton, produced by Joseph Schenck and Buster Keaton, written by Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith and Paul Girard Smith, starring Buster Keaton as Johnnie Gray, Marion Mack as Annabelle Lee, Glen Cavender as Captain Anderson, Jim Farley as General Thatcher, Frederick Vroom as a Confederate General, Charles Henry Smith as Annabelle’s Father (Charles Smith), Frank Barnes as Annabelle’s Brother, Joe Keaton as an Union General, Mike Donlin as an Union General and Tom Nawn as an Union General.