Back in 1862, during the Civil War, Union Army raiders stole a locomotive named The General, running between Atlanta, GA and Chattanooga, TN, in order to disrupt service and do damage to the track, covered bridges and telegraph wires. The hijacked train was pursued not only by other locomotives, but also by handcar, and on foot. While the event did not exactly go according to plan, and several raiders were executed as spies, other raiders escaped their imprisonment and later -- back in Union territory -- received the very first Medals of Honor ever bestowed.
This exciting story has been told at least twice on film. One is in Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), featuring Fess Parker (Daniel Boone!) as the conductor of the hijacked locomotive, determined to stop the Unionists. It gets good marks on both Netflix and IMDB, so check it out.
The Disney version is likely more a retelling of the story, where the Buster Keaton version, The General (1927), is more a feast for the eyes with fantastic stunt work and comedic genius (in silent film fashion) filling the screen.
In The General, Keaton plays a southern engineer (turned down by Confederate recruitment officers when they realize his value as a skilled engineer), aghast to learn his beloved Annabelle is on the hijacked train. He thus embarks on a chaotic adventure to recover the train and his love, and uncovers a dastardly plot against the Confederates along the way. Can he save Annabelle? Regain The General? Can he get word to the south about the impending attack?
It’s a fantastic story, and full of Keaton magic. As with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, there are many worthy films in this artist’s cannon, but we strongly recommend this as a starting point for Keaton. Kids are thrilled with the visuals, especially if you take the time to explain they are all quite real, no computer trickery, and that Keaton actually put his life on the line for some of these shots.
Here is a great little snippet from a documentary (courtesy of YouTube) about Keaton and the making of The General. The narrator reports, during one especially harrowing scene: “The camera man had orders to keep shooting until Keaton either yelled CUT, or was killed.”