A look at the astonishing practical stunt that sits at the heart of the Buster Keaton classic, The General.

No action film is complete without stunts.

Despite the greater use of CGI within the last decade or so, action franchises like John Wick are still relying on physical stuntwork to tell their story. But whilst these stunts can just appear as two trained professionals faking combat, it’s inevitably far more intricate, and likely more expensive, than it first appears.

Modern stunts may appear more groundbreaking than what came before. They may come across as flashy, and trying to outdo what came before. Furthermore, there’s always a touch of CG on offer to be added too, especially for expensive blockbusters. Sometimes it feels as though money is no object for bringing an action sequence to the screen.

Yet before this way of filmmaking came about, there was another infamous stunt that broke the bank in order to achieve something that was deemed impossible for the screen. This is the story of Buster Keaton’s The General and the train sequence that’s forever set to be the most expensive silent movie stunt ever.

Buster Keaton is one of the true silent Hollywood stars, with his short and feature work receiving restorations, honorary awards and profiles still today.

Keaton like many other silent comedians performed his own stunts in order to further guarantee that the audience would laugh. Having grown up as a vaudeville performer with his parents, he was used to throwing himself around the stage and so it made little difference when his theatre audience was replaced with a camera. Having perfected the art of slapstick, Keaton was named ‘the great stone face’ due to him remaining dead-pan no matter if he fell off a ladder or if his love interest rejected him.

Keaton thrived under the independent work of United Artists and his own Buster Keaton Productions. His mind didn’t work with meetings and documents; if he was stuck on an idea he’d delay shooting and have a game of brainstorm baseball. With fairly small budgets, Keaton would follow his contract and make several pictures a year. Whilst they weren’t all home-runs, Keaton carried on this chain of movie-making all the way through the 1920s until he got to The General, his most ambitious project yet.

Set during the civil war, the story was inspired by The Great Locomotive Chase, Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, a train engineer who embarks on a train chase when the love of his life Annabelle (Marion Mack) becomes a prisoner of Union spies. Running around 75 minutes long, The General is essentially one long stunt sequence, the silent movies’ Mad Max: Fury Road. His budget was now sitting around $750,000 (equating to around $11 million today), a figure that was regarded as ludicrous. However its budget could be clearly seen compared to his other movies and near the final act of the film, the aforementioned train scene takes place.

After saving Annabelle and heading back to warn the south of the Union’s plans, Johnnie now finds himself fending off his pursuers. When he reaches friendly lines, he warns the Confederates of the impending attack and they rush to defend the bridge by burning it. When the pursuing locomotive drives onto the burning bridge, it collapses causing the entire train to fall into the river. Shot on July 23, 1926, this train collapsing equated as the most expensive shot in film history thus far. Costing a grand whopping $42,000, Keaton had six individual cameramen cranking the cameras to get coverage. There was no chance of affording a new bridge or a new locomotive; this one take had to be perfect. And it was.

Here’s a video explaining it a little more…

The General further demonstrated Keaton’s attempt at taking risks. He thought he had his best picture yet. But the public and critics told him he had a flop and the film made only around $800,000 in return. In order to avoid distributors and companies losing any more money, Keaton was now given a production manager to keep an eye on costs. Always the creative however, Keaton found a way to up his stunt from before. Whilst working on Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton is involved in a stunt where the entire front of a house falls and collapses on him, but the house just misses him due to a well-placed window. Shot in one take again, the clearance around Keaton’s head and shoulders was about two inches, any further off and he would have been killed instantly by the house which weighed around two tonnes.

Again though, Keaton’s work was regarded as a flop and the dangerous risks he had made to find a laugh were worth little at the box office.

This would be the turning point in Keaton’s career causing the eventual downfall of his time in Hollywood. No longer receiving funding for his independent features and with the sound era now coming to fruition, Keaton signed a grand contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM], a studio system that would severely limit his creative input. Later calling it the worst decision of his life, and ignoring advice from lifelong friend Charlie Chaplin who described their studio as like “having too many cooks in the kitchen,” Keaton was desperate to keep continuing his craft and unfortunately the gamble didn’t work out.

During the 1920s, many people would have been outraged to see that much money being spent on a moving picture. Keaton was ahead of the pack and knew the direction in which Hollywood and American movies were heading. His stunts may have not been received well at the time but today his movies are regarded as masterpieces, with the American Film Institute ranking The General as one of the greatest movies ever made.

Wise to remember that stunts are not just a call to one-up the competition, but an element of movies that should be synonymous with cinematography or sound. Stunts enhance storytelling and there is no better proof of this than Buster Keaton.

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