Sorry Tom Cruise, This Is Still the Greatest Stunt in Movie History

Tom Cruise might have done some quintessential stunt work, but his artistry still stands on the shoulders of Buster Keaton‘s immeasurable contributions, none more important than the death-defying exploits in The General. Keaton’s love for carnage and thrill-chasing immortalized his name as one of the most celebrated figures in the history of cinema. By 1926, his charm was already captivating audiences left and right. However, little did people know that the best was yet to come in the form of a romantic-comedy set in the Civil War, and a film of which Keaton was proudest.

Buster Keaton was inspired to make the picture by his eventual co-director Clyde Bruckman after the latter told him about The Great Locomotive Chase, the memoir of Union Army soldier William Pettinger. As the comedian had an affinity with trains, he decided to pursue the project but changed the point of view of the novel. Instead of having the protagonist be a Union soldier, Keaton decided to make him a member of the Confederates, which led to a nationwide controversy. Eventually finding an area in Oregon that had old-fashioned railroads with companies supplying vintage locomotives, producer Joseph Schenck greenlit the production and gave Keaton’s team $400,000.00 to work with. While this is an immense figure, especially for the time, this was only the tip of the iceberg when accounting for the film’s costs.

RELATED: Why This 1928 Silent Film Is Buster Keaton’s Last Masterwork

What Is ‘The General’ About?

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Image via United Artists

The General tells the story of Johnnie Gray and his utmost love for his girl Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), and his train, aptly named The General, during the civil war. Essentially forced by the circumstances to enlist in the Confederate army, Johnnie is rejected because of his occupation. Remaining an engineer was more useful to the South than being a soldier, but this earns the ire of Annabelle, her father, and her brother. Dejected with his current status, he suddenly finds himself in a pickle when spies of the Union Army steal his beloved locomotive to break the supply lines of the Confederacy. When he finds out that Annabelle is on the train, he musters up all of his courage and bravely chases after the thieves. The majority of the runtime of The General is devoted to the train chases as a result of this, and they showcased some of the best work in Keaton’s entire filmography.

How Many Risks Did Buster Keaton Take While Filming His Stunts in ‘The General’?

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Image via United Artists

In the ensuing pursuit, Johnnie Gray manages to escape several predicaments set by the Union soldiers. In true Buster Keaton fashion, Gray falls down when his handcar slips out of the rails. In one of the more iconic action sequences in movie history, he dislodges a log stuck in the middle of the railroad just in time to save his train, one removed by throwing another log on top, and the other removed by his bare hands. He plays with a cannon, firewood, and all the other objects in the train leading to hilarious results.

At a time when computer-generated imagery still didn’t exist, and everything was to be done practically, Keaton took all the risk to present viewers with glimpses of real-life thrills. Due to the costs of the multitude of stunts, the working figure of $400,000.00 slowly ballooned to almost $1 million. This was to account for several set changes, medical costs for on-set accidents, and an immense payroll for over 3,000 people on the production. This understandably irked the picture’s producer, and some tabloids claimed that Keaton had no control over the chaotic set. Despite the numerous tribulations, these conditions produced what is still considered to be one of, if not the greatest stunt in movie history.

What Happens During ‘The General’s Iconic Train Stunt?

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

When Johnnie Gray stumbles onto a Union Army encampment, he discovers the route the enemy train is taking: Rock River bridge. After he rescues Annabelle, they steal back The General and warn the Confederates about their plans. Two Union trains, including “The Texas” run after them, setting the stage for an explosive spectacle. Johnnie and Annabelle begin to set fire to the bridge with their stock firewood, and amidst hilarious accidents, await the coming of both the Confederate reinforcements and the Union train. When The Texas finally passes, the bridge collapses due to fire damage and catastrophically crashes into the river.

The impact of this stunt reverberated across the annals of cinema, some of which could still be felt in today’s day and age. The town of Cottage Grove in Oregon, the place where the stunt was held, even declared a holiday so that the townsfolk could witness the spectacle firsthand. This must have brought great pressure on Keaton’s shoulders. The production had insufficient funds and time to construct a bridge if this had failed, and dozens of onlookers would revel in the already downtrodden reputation of the comedian. He had one shot do it, and despite all the roadblocks, he succeeded in making a stunt sequence for the ages. Everyone was well aware of Keaton’s daredevil approach, but this proved that he was just as adventurous off of it.

Despite this opportunity for elation, there were a lot of things that brought him back down to earth. From a financial standpoint, it was massive, even devastating if you consider what came next. The train stunt alone cost $42,000 at the time, which if adjusted for inflation, is worth about a whopping $600,000.00. Currently, this still sits as the most expensive stunt in silent film history. In name, it sounds fantastic. In reality, it was a blow that Keaton perpetually felt inside. The General bombed at the box office and failed to get positive reviews from critics. As a result of this, Nicolas Schenck dealt the comedian to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, essentially killing his creative and financial freedom. While he would eventually recover as an artist, it was a crushing defeat for a picture that would eventually be one of the blueprints for stunt work, which would go on to influence stars from Jackie Chan to Tom Cruise.

How Do ‘The General’s Stunts Continue To Influence Modern Movies?

Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa in 'Mission_ Impossible - Ghost Protocol' (2011) (1)
Image via Paramount Pictures

Despite failing to garner acclaim during its day, The General is a fine film that eventually got re-appraised for its intrinsic value. It was one of the first films to be preserved by the Library of Congress in the US National Film Registry and is so majestically praised by critics and filmmakers alike. Orson Welles notably mentioned that the picture immortalized Buster Keaton as “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of cinema”. The train scene, and all of its accompanying facets, give a fascinating insight into both “Keaton, the star” and “Keaton, the filmmaker”, and how these two are almost inseparable. Using similar strokes, the amalgamation of these two different personas molded a product that has continued to stand the test of time. Much like remnants of the train crash still residing in the Row River today, the stunt is still embedded in the minds of many. They say that when viewers see Tom Cruise taking it to the next level with every Mission: Impossible sequel, Buster Keaton is smiling from the skies like a proud father relishing the roads he has paved for the next generation.

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