Production for The General involved guns, bombs, fires, and the blowing up of a bridge in a tiny Oregon town. When the filming was over, the comedic legend’s career was in tatters. Forty years later, the movie was hailed as a masterpiece.
On July 23, 1926, one of the most famous actors in the world stood nervously by a river in rural Oregon, ready to shoot a scene that could change the course of his career. The 30-year-old Buster Keaton’s deadpan comedic genius and nail-biting stunt work had already put him alongside legends like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. His goal today was to shoot the pivotal scene in The General, a comedy-romance-action film based on a real event from the Civil War.
Keaton’s Hollywood crew had pulled into the tiny logging town of Cottage Grove two months earlier, 18 freight cars full of Civil War cannons, stagecoaches, prairie schooners, props, cameras, and over 1,200 costumes. Carpenters built an entire fake town, residents lined up to play bit parts, and hundreds of national guardsmen were recruited for battle scenes. Cottage Grove—and all of the Pacific Northwest, for that matter—had never seen anything like it. Keaton oversaw the entire operation personally, from writing the script to setting up and filming stunts where one slip could be fatal. He did all this despite injuries, lawsuits, forest fires, and budget overruns.
Today was the day for a shot that would make or break the entire production. A steam locomotive was to roll across a burning trestle, which—if everything went as planned—would collapse at exactly the right moment and dump the train into the Row River. At a cost of $42,000—equivalent to more than $600,000 today—it would be the single most expensive shot in silent-film history. And there was exactly one chance to get it right.