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Although Buster Keaton is listed above the title for the film in the opening credits, he is last in the cast of characters at the end of the film. The General is based on an event in the American Civil War that happened in the spring of 1862. A spy named James J. Andrews, accompanied by Union soldiers, penetrated Confederate lines in Tennessee, stole a train in Marietta, Georgia and drove it North. They intended to destroy track and bridges to prevent the Confederates from sending troops to counter an intended surprise attack in Tennessee. Andrews was captured outside Chatanooga because of train difficulties, and the persistence of the train's Confederate conductor, William Fuller, who persued the train on foot, by handcar and train. The Union soliders were later awarded Congressional Medals of Honour for their efforts.
During The General's production, Joseph Schenck, producer and president of Buster Keaton Productions, became president of United Artists. One of Schenck's first decisions at United Artists was to give additional funding to complete The General and for United Artists to distribute the film. According to modern sources, the film was not financial success for either Schenck and United Artists.
According to modern sources, The General was shot on location near Cottage Grove, Oregon, the McKenzie River in Oregon, Santa Monica and Hollywood, California. Keaton attempted to use historically accurate locomotives, sets and costumes from the Civil War period film. As part of the production, a small river was damed to create the look of the wide Mississippi River. When an appropriate trestle bridge could not be found, Keaton ordered one built. Several modern sources claim that the scene in which the train crashes from this bridge cost over $42,000, making it the most expensive single scene to be shot in silent films to date. Keaton performed all of his own stunts, which put him in great danger during the production.
The crew for the film included 500 members of the Oregon National Guard, who were hired as army soldiers. Keaton's father, Joe Keaton, plays a Union general in the film. Modern sources add Richard Allen; Jimmy Bryant; Budd Fine; Frank Hagney; Ray Hanford; Al Hanson; Anthony Harvey, I; Edward Hearn; Ross McCutheon; Tom Moran; Charles Phillips; Red Rial; Ray Thomas and Ted Thompson; Jackie Lowe, Jackie Hanlon and Jack Dempster to the cast. Modern sources also credit Harry Barnes as the film's assistant director, Sherman Kell as the film editor, Harry Barnes as assistant editor and Fred C. Ryle with makeup.
In later interviews, Keaton described The General as one of his favorite films. Although the contemporary reviews were mixed, the film received critical acclaim in the 1960s, a few years before before Keaton's death in 1966. Many modern sources have proclaimed the film to be the greatest comic epic of all time. In 2007, The General was ranked 18th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films and was also ranked 18th on AFI's list of funniest movies.
The Walt Disney Studios used the same source material for The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, directed by Francis D. Lyon and starring Fess Parker; however, this film was told from a Union soldier's viewpoint, and was not a comedy.
Although modern sources note that Keaton was hired to create gags for Red Skelton to use in the 1948 M-G-M film A Southern Yankee (see AFI Catalog of Feature Film, 1941-50), which was also based on the same historical incident, the plot of the M-G-M film is only slightly related to it or either The General or The Great Locomotive Chase. In the 1960s reissue of the The General, new sound effects and new score by Konrad Elfers were created for the film, but the original titles were retained.