The General was based upon a true story, William Pittenger’s 1863 memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. Though Mr. Pittenger (one of the first Medal of Honor recipients) was a Union, not Confederate, soldier, the source material concerned a military raid in the South. It began 12 April 1862, when Union Army volunteers hijacked a train and drove it to Chattanooga. Along the way, they severely damaged the Western & Atlantic Railroad line.
Since the Union forces had cut telegraph wires, it was impossible to send warnings. However, the Confederates eventually captured them. Some were executed as spies, while others escaped. The U.S. Congress gave the Medal of Honor to some of the raiders, though they couldn’t award leader James J. Andrews, since he was a civilian and not in the military.
Obviously, I understand some Southerners wouldn’t consider these guys heroes!
Though the book was written from the Northern POV, Buster didn’t think the audience would accept Confederates as villains, and switched the story’s perspective. The trend in that era to portray the South as underdogs, heroes, victims, etc., may have been due to retrospective romanticizing of “the lost cause,” even among writers and filmmakers who weren’t Southern themselves.
I’m a Northerner myself, but I don’t have any problem with the other side being portrayed sympathetically, just as I don’t have any problem with a positive portrayal of, e.g., a normal family in Nazi Germany. It can be done well, so long as there’s no historical revisionism or sugarcoating of negative aspects of history. We’re all humans, even if some humans have ended up on the losing side of wars.
Buster filmed in Central Oregon, where there were old-fashioned railroads perfect for the treatment. He’d tried to rent the real-life General, but his request was denied. The owners didn’t want it used in a comedy. In its place, however, Buster bought two vintage Civil War trains from the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railway, and bought a third train in Eugene, Oregon, to depict The Texas.
Producer Joseph Schenk (Buster’s brother-in-law at the time) allotted a $400,000 budget. Buster worked on the script for weeks, and grew his hair long for an authentic period feel. When the cast and crew arrived in Oregon, they had 18 freight cars full of Civil War-era stagecoaches, cannons, passenger cars, wagons, houses, and laborers. Regular train service ceased during filming, and 1,500 locals were hired as extras.
Film production being what it is, the budget began ballooning. Buster built real dams to change the depth of rivers, and also built bridges. There were also a number of on-set accidents adding to the swelling budget, among them Buster (who did all his own stunts) being knocked unconscious.
Other accidents included fires from the train’s engine spreading to farmers’ haystacks (costing $25 per stack) and forests; a train wheel running over a brakeman’s foot and resulting in a $2,900 lawsuit; and an assistant director getting shot in the face with a black cartridge.
It was reported that the budget had grown to between $500,000 and a million dollars. Schenk was quite upset at Buster for spending so much money.
Between three to four thousand residents of the town of Cottage Grove turned out to watch the climactic train wreck scene, which cost $42,000 and is said to be the most expensive single shot in the history of silent cinema. Among the locals in attendance were 500 extras from the Oregon National Guard. Shooting began four hours late, used six cameras, and required several long runs.
The wreckage was left in the river, and was a minor tourist attraction until 1944–45, when it was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort.
Buster and his company were forced to return to Los Angeles on 6 August 1926, due to excessive smoke left in the air after yet another fire, which broke out during a fight scene. This fire cost $50,000. In late August, heavy rains cleared the air, and they returned.
Finally, on 18 September, shooting wrapped. Buster had accrued 200,000 feet of film, and planned a late December release after the long editing process.