Buster Keaton always said that this was his favorite movie.
Buster Keaton shot most of this film outdoors in Oregon because the narrow-gauge railroad tracks that could accommodate antique locomotives were still in use at the time.
Buster Keaton wanted to use the real locomotive "The General" in the movie which was at the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee (it's in Kennesaw, Georgia now), but was unable to, and had to dress up another 4-4-0 locomotive instead.
Joseph M. Schenck gave Buster Keaton $400,000 for the movie, so the production company moved with 18 freight cars of props and sets to Oregon. In the next two months the town of Marrietta, Georgia, was built, near the Oregon town of Cottage Grove.
500 Oregon National Guardsmen play the 2 armies.
A number of celebrities have cameos in this film: Glen Cavender had been a hero in the Spanish-American War. Also, Frederick Vroom had appeared earlier in Keaton's The Navigator as the girl's father whose ship is hijacked. Keaton's former director of photography, Elgin Lessley, has a cameo as the Union general who gives the command to cross the burning bridge. Producer Louis Lewyn has a bit part as a soldier.
Based on a true incident during the Civil War. In April 1862, Union agent James J. Andrews led a squad of 21 soldiers on a daring secret raid. Dressed in civilian clothes, Andrews and his men traveled by rail into the Southern states. Their mission was to sabotage rail lines and disrupt the Confederate army's supply chain. At the town of Little Shanty, GA, the raiders stole a locomotive known as "The General." They headed north, tearing up track, burning covered bridges and cutting telegraph lines along the way. William Fuller and Jeff Cain, the conductor and engineer of "The General," pursued the stolen train by rail and foot. They first used a hand-cart (as Buster Keaton does in the film), then a small work locomotive called "The Yonah," which they borrowed from a railroad work crew, and finally a full-sized Confederate army locomotive called "The Texas," which pursued "The General" for 51 miles - in reverse. During the chase, Confederate soldiers were able to repair the sabotaged telegraph wires and send messages ahead of the raiders. Andrews and his men were intercepted and captured near Chattanooga, TN, by a squad of Confederate troops led by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest (who, after the war, was one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan). Tried as spies, Andrews and seven of his raiders were hanged (a special gallows was built to hold al
Florida State University commissioned composer Jeff Beal to write a brand-new soundtrack for this silent film. It was premiered by the University Philharmonia along with the original film playing just above the orchestra.
In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the #18 Greatest Movie of All Time. It was the first inclusion of this film on the list.
In the scene where Johnnie and Annabelle refill the water reservoir of the train, Marion Mack said in an interview many years later that she had no idea that she was supposed to get drenched. Buster Keaton had not told her what was supposed to happen, so the shock you see is genuine.
In the scenes with the opposing armies marching, Keaton had the extras (which included Oregon National Guard troops) wear the uniforms of the Confederacy and march in one direction past the camera, then he had them change uniforms to the Union blue and had them march past the camera in the other direction.
In the train crash a dummy was used as engineer. It looks so realistic that the townspeople who had come to watch screamed in horror.
Included among the '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die', edited by Steven Jay Schneider.
Premiere voted this movie as one of "The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time" in 2006.
The film upon release was a box office disaster and received negative reviews. in response to that, the studio told Buster Keaton that he was now restricted to movie making. After this, the studio would not let him make his own movies, he had to do what the studio gave him to make.
The film's hard-edged look was inspired by the battlefield photographs of Matthew Brady, which captured the carnage of the Civil War in shocking detail.
The final battle scene sparked a small forest fire around the river. Buster Keaton, his crew, and the extras stopped filming to fight the fire.
The first try at getting the cannonball to shoot out of the cannon into the cab caused the ball to shoot with too much force. To cause the cannonball to shoot into the cab of the engine correctly, Keaton had to count out the grains of gunpowder with tweezers.
The scene in which The Texas crashes through the bridge was the single most expensive shot of the entire silent movie era. The Texas itself remained in the river until WWII, when it was salvaged for scrap iron.
This and Steamboat Bill, Jr. were Buster Keaton's last great films. Shortly after these film were made, the independent-minded Keaton made the mistake of signing a contract with MGM, whose regimented ways clashed with his scrupulous perfectionism. Five years after MGM hired him, it dropped his contract and Keaton drifted into obscurity.