Actual participation in The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon – The General, Factual or Fictional?

Posted as part of the Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology

The General has, as a movie, received a lot of thumbs up. Roger Ebert credited it with “a graceful perfection”, it currently sits at number 34 in Sight and Sound’s (interestingly silents heavy) critics’ poll of the greatest movies of all time and was amongst the first batch of movies inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation by the Library of Congress no less.

As a piece of cinema, then, its reputation seems (despite the well documented ambivalence of audiences in 1926) assured. But what about as a historical document?

I was certainly unaware until I read more about Buster’s career that The General is actually based on a real Civil War incident – namely, the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. Buster and his collaborator (credited as co-director, somewhat generously by all accounts, including his) Clyde Bruckman based the movie on ‘Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure’ written by one William A. Pittinger – an active participant in the day’s events (although not, as it turns out, necessarily a wholly reliable narrator).

As a Brit whose Civil War knowledge was roughly equivalent to that demanded by Apu’s citizenship test, this came as something of a surprise. But it did light a spark of curiosity, just how accurate is it?

intertitle1

All of the named characters (with one obvious exception!) seem to be based pretty much directly on real people.

For Johnnie Gray, read a Mr William Allen Fuller, conductor of The General on the day in question. In reality, he was not the only member of the crew to take up the chase (being accompanied by Anthony Murphy (foreman of motive and machine power) and E. Jefferson Cain (the engineer)). Amalgamating these three to one character makes perfect cinematic sense and I get the feeling that Mr Fuller would have wholeheartedly approved, given he seems to have made vigorous efforts to talk up his role at the expense of Murphy and Cain’s.

william_fuller

William A. Fuller. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You can see the movie star quality right there. Great hair.

On the Union side, ‘Captain Anderson’ stands in for James J. Andrews, leader of the group subsequently dubbed ‘Andrews’ Raiders’ but in fact not a captain or indeed a soldier at all. Andrews was something of an adventurer having been engaged in the (highly profitable) business of running quinine (lots of bugs in Mississippi) from North to South despite (or, depending on your point of view, because of) the Northern blockade. He did use this position to gather information for the Yankees, but it seems unclear whether he felt any great allegiance to one side or the other or whether he was simply engaged in profitably playing one side off against the other.

Andrews’ motives for planning the raid are likewise somewhat opaque, with varying accounts of how much he expected to be paid for its successful completion. For all that, though, he conducted himself with considerable daring during the raid and even more dignity in its aftermath. There’s a great movie waiting to be made about him too.

james_andrews

James J. Andrews. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘General Thatcher’ would be a Brigadier General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, popularly known as ‘Old Stars’ and, at the time, riding high on his successful push into Alabama.

Thus, far, looking pretty good!

Hmm, yes. Perhaps not unexpectedly there’s no record of any romantic complications of any kind. Still, Johnnie doesn’t even know his girl’s on the train until he gets to Union territory (which, as we’ll see, never happened anyway). So, you know, whatevs.

intertitle3

Spectacularly back on track[1] here though. In the movie, Johnnie tries to enlist with the Confederate army but is rejected because (unbeknownst to him) it’s decided that keeping the railroad running is more valuable than one more soldier.

Allowing for a little compression for dramatic purposes, on this point Buster is wholly accurate. William Fuller did almost joint a militia, but the governor of Georgia proclaimed that experienced railroaders should stay at their posts rather than joining up. A wholly sensible decision given how critical the railroads were to both sides as really the only practical means of moving men, supplies and equipment the vast distances involved in fighting the Civil War.

[1] Weak pun intended

In terms of timing, spot on again! The attack on Fort Sumter, generally seen as the start of the war, occurred on 12 April 1861, whilst the Andrews Raid (pleasingly for fans of symmetry and writers of silent movies intertitles) was a year to the day later.

intertitle8

The intertitles for Anderson/Andrews’ tête-à-tête with Thatcher/Old Stars gives a brief, but pretty accurate, summation of the plan, such as it was, with the ultimate aim being the capture of Chattanooga, TN., a critical hub for pretty much all Confederate rail traffic from West to East.

Quite who ‘General Parker’ represents is a little less clear. Best guess, a General Don Carlos Buell, Old Stars’ immediate superior who had around 60,000 men in Tennessee at the time. However, expecting him to seize the day on a moment’s notice might have been a trifle optimistic. DC was a cautious fellow, once boasting that he had “studiously avoided any movements which to the enemy would have any appearance of activity or method.” He was hardly alone in this. Indeed, it seems that Abe Lincoln spent a not inconsiderable amount of his time early in the war fielding explanations from various commanders of why they simply could not advance against less numerous Confederate forces. No wonder he looked so grumpy.

And yes, they did make their way south to Atlanta by pretending to be Kentuckians looking to join the Confederate Army. This seems to have involved affecting big ol’ Southern accents (I’m thinking O’ Brother Where Art Thou?, but then I think everyone in Minnesota sounds like Marge Gunderson so I’m probably not the best judge) and, after one close shave, swapping some blue Union army trousers for a less conspicuous yellow striped number. If anything, this charade seem to have been too convincing, given that two of the party actually ended up joining a Confederate artillery unit.

The actual theft of The General is almost eerily spot on, historical accuracywise.

  • Yes, it was at the marvellously named Big Shanty
  • Yes, it was during a meal/refuelling break
  • Yes, Andrews and Co did just drive away, unchallenged until Fuller (and Murphy and Cain) went running after them.
  • Yes, the pursuers did set off thinking it was cowardly deserters, not beastly Northern raiders who had nicked their train.

The movie does swap breakfast for dinner, in fact the journey was so early that two of the raiders overslept and missed their 5am (!!) departure from Marietta. For perhaps understandable reasons, the reported jeers and laughter of the crowd, along with helpful suggestions along the lines of ‘get a horse’ are not included. We may be divided by geography and time, but unhelpful wiseacres are universal.

The chase itself is also surprisingly true to history, at least up to a point. The pursuers really did progress through a variety of means of transport, including a hand car (although rather than the ‘see saw’ type thing we see in the film, it was apparently a weird sort of gondola arrangement propelled by pushing poles along the ground), which really did hit a break in the rails and tumble into a ditch. The raiders really did throw all manner of stuff, including sleepers, on the track in a bid to slow them down. No one seems to have sat on the cowcatcher and bounced them out of the way, although Fuller did, somewhat unconvincingly, claim to have pulled one (weighing in at about 900 pounds) out of the way on his own. Fuller and co really did give chase on the Texas (in reality, following stints on the Yonah and the William R Smith).

Moving on, the raiders really did pass up opportunities to engage their pursuers in the mistaken belief that they were more numerous and better armed than was in fact the case and the chase did in the end become a question of who ran out of wood and water (both of which a 19th century locomotive consumed in heroic quantities) first. After reaching the almost unbelievable speed of 60mph [insert wry observation about the probability of a modern British train achieving such a feat], the General finally ran out of both (in fact, you might say it ran out of steam!![1]) about 15 miles from Chattanooga. At which point, Andrews and the rest of the raiders headed for the hills.

the_general_abandonded

By Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (book authors). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 There was, sadly, no train based cannon, so a bit of artistic licence there. In other ways though, Buster seems to have stayed more accurate than his source material by leaving out some of the more, shall we say, florid elements of Pittinger’s account – primarily, the notion that at one point a train literally jumped over a gap in the track. I’m as big a fan of Speed (the movie, not the controlled substance) as the next man, but that I am not buying.

[1] I’m sorry

intertitle13

So, up to a point, impressively accurate. However, sadly for history (but gloriously for cinema) after a point Buster diverges from the facts completely. Fuller never left Confederate territory and there was no chase back towards Atlanta, which means no trains crashing through burning bridges (in reality, the Texas remained in service until the early 20th century and The General has pride of place to this day in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History).

wa_no3

Western and Atlantic Railroad No. 3 ‘The General’ on display in Kennesaw, Georgia. [Photographer Harvey Henkelman via Wikimedia Commons]

In reality, after fleeing the scene the raiders were captured, imprisoned and in eight cases (including Andrews himself) hanged as spies. Eight more escaped and the remaining six were later exchanged for Confederate prisoners. 18 of the Andrews Raiders (including the two sleepyheads, but not Andrews himself as a civilian) subsequently received the Congressional Medal of Honor – amongst their number the very first recipients of the United States’ highest military honour. These basic facts, though, skim over a number of prison breaks, flights through hostile territory (possibly the inspiration for Buster’s rainy night with a bear) and no small amount of controversy. You could make a dozen movies about this stuff.

intertitle14

Up to a point, The General stays close to history, often strikingly so and whilst the second half of the movie is fiction (as Keaton later said “the original locomotive chase ended when I found myself in Northern territory and had to desert. From then on it was my invention, in order to get a complete plot.”), this comedy still scores way, way higher than many ‘serious’ historical films (I’m looking at you Braveheart and Anonymous).

monumento_a_william_wallace_en_escocia

By No machine-readable author provided. Emilio Kopaitic~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 “Historians from England will say I am a liar”

Indeed they will, Mel, on account of all the lying.

If anything this little exercise has made me admire the film and its maker even more. You could make a number of movies from the source material, from a number of perspectives – Buster took far from the most obvious and made, if not the best possible movie, something pretty damn close. Bravo, sir, bravo.

Wanting more?

This is, inevitably, a very quick canter through a long and fascinating story. If you want to fill in some gaps, I can heartily recommend ‘Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor’ by Russell S. Bonds (available from Westholme Publishing).

If, on the other hand, you fancy reading something along these lines but written by an actual historian who actually knows what they’re talking about, might I point you in the direction of Reel History (Atlantic Books) by the brilliant Alex von Tunzelmann?

Sources:

  • Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor – Russell S. Bonds, 2007
  • The American Civil War – John Keegan, 2009
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Actual participation in the ‘Try It, You’ll Like It’ blogathon – Casablanca and the wisdom of the old movie newbie

Posted as part of the ‘Try It, You’ll Like It’ blogathon hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently

WARNING! Includes details of some really, really well known plot points

I’m lucky enough to have some lovely friends. Witty, erudite, appreciative of a good scotch egg. However, until recently they had a collective blind spot – old movies. And by old, I mean up to and including Ghostbusters. Certainly, black and white was, for them, an undiscovered country that puzzled the will.

I decided that this situation needed to be addressed. Not least because those without a basic grounding in movie quotes might be forgiven for thinking that a lot of what I say makes no sense at all. I can no more enter a bookie’s without saying:

“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

than I can walk past a piano without tinkling a couple of keys and asserting that:

“That’s right, boys. It’s Dr. Venkman.”

This sort of nonsense was generally greeted with some level of bemusement. Of course, I concealed my annoyance with masterly self-control but still, something had to be done.

So, when Casablanca popped up at the BFI (great cinema by the way, if you’re in London you should definitely find time for a visit) I seized my chance and, with a surprisingly small amount of mither, persuaded a small but select group that a black and white movie could and would be a rewarding and entertaining experience (or at least that it’s only 100 minutes long and the seats will be comfy).

By Trailer screenshot (Casablanca trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Trailer screenshot (Casablanca trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we sat down I was, I confess, a little nervous. I’d made some pretty bold statements about black and white movies and they were about to be put to the test. That said, I thought I was on relatively safe ground with Casablanca because, amongst other things:

  • Claude Rains is hilarious. For most actors, “we haven’t decided yet if he committed suicide or died trying to escape” is an ok line, maybe not to be played for laughs at all, he makes it brilliantly funny.
  • Humphrey Bogart shows why he’s a movie icon. He really grounds the thing, keeping us invested in the story while the supporting cast devour the scenery (I’m looking at you, Peter Lorre, because you’re brilliant).
  • It teeters on the very brink of the ridiculous but, I think due to the great cast, never quite topples over. Chucking the Vichy water in the bin and “Play it! Play La Marseillaise!” could have been cringy, but in these hands they’re joyous.
By Trailer screenshot (Notorious trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Trailer screenshot (Notorious trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not to worry, Claude, you were excellent!

Still, it was with a measure of trepidation that I asked what everyone made of it. Good news! They loved it! But one comment really stuck with me:

“I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d end up with Rick or Victor Laszlo.”

It had genuinely never occurred to me that anyone didn’t know that, but if you’ve never seen it or read about it then why would you?

Since then, we’ve been back a number of times, with a lot of hits:

  • Laura
  • Rear Window
  • The 39 Steps
  • The Apartment*
  • Sweet Smell of Success
  • Singin’ In The Rain*
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Psycho – although, interestingly, a couple of flat out refusals to try that one. That’s a movie with a reputation.

And a few misses:

  • The Bad and the Beautiful
  • Funny Face

*The same bloke was lukewarm about both of these.

From this, I’d draw a number of conclusions:

  • Dramas with a wry sense of humour are a winner
  • Hitchcock is, was and always shall be the master
  • Musicals can go either way
  • I don’t understand some people

The plot expectations continue to be fascinating (and to make me feel slightly like a Victorian explorer who finds a tribe as yet untouched by civilisation – although without the urge to shoot them and nick their country), one that sticks in the mind is that the cop who pulls Marion over early in Psycho would come back and either rescue or arrest her. Again, totally reasonable if ‘shower scene’ means nothing to you.

In a sense, of course, I’m watching a different movie to them. Either I’ve seen it before or I’ve got a reasonable expectation of what the plot consists of, they’re starting with a blank slate.

Casablanca Update

I recently saw Casablanca again with another first timer, it still worked its magic but for me it was a slightly different experience.

The politics of the movie (“isolationism is no longer a practical policy” etc) have always felt very much of their time, but right now the references to a tortuous refugee trail seem much more urgent and, of course, the Marseillaise scene had a moment following the terrible events in Paris. I guess movies stay the same, but the eyes we see them through do not.

Actual participation in the Swashathon – The 39 Steps is…

“Posted as part of the Swashathon hosted by Movies Silently

Towards the end of this magnificent movie, our dashing hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) asks, nay demands, to know what are the 39 steps.

“COME ON, ANSWER ME! WHAT ARE THE 39 STEPS???”

He seems pretty anxious for clarity on that point, and he’s been through a lot by then so I think he deserves an answer. The thought occurs, however, that the 39 Steps is a number of things.

…definitely a swashbuckler

When I submitted this for the Swashathon, Fritzi quite rightly challenged me on whether it meets the definition of a swashbuckler at all. I pondered on this and decided that a clear and concise set of criteria were needed against which a possible ‘buckler can be gauged.

I’d propose the following:

Met by 39 Steps?
The hero has a carefree, almost reckless attitude to life I’d say so. Apart from anything else, how long has that haddock been in the pantry for?
…has a rakish moustache Oh yes.
…wears a pair of stupid trousers Not really, I’m afraid. He seems keen on a sort of tweedy impertinence.
…slides down a sail and/or swings on a rope with a knife between his teeth Not as such, no.
…is willing to stop a train on the bridge, despite that being against all the regulations Yes! He is! That’s the clincher!!
By unknown (Douglas Fairbanks Prod. / United Artists) (http://www.virtual-history.com/movie/image/26576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By unknown (Douglas Fairbanks Prod. / United Artists) (http://www.virtual-history.com/movie/image/26576) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 Maybe it's not the most swashbuckling film out there.

…more like a silent film than you might think

Ok, it’s not a silent film. There’s talking and a variety of sounds that you could, if that were your wont, describe as diegetic. There are, however, a surprising number of bits – and some of its best bits at that – which could have been in a silent film.

Most famously, the scene with Hannay having dinner with the crofter and his wife (John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft no less) plays out almost silently and yet it’s always perfectly clear what’s going on and what each of the three characters think is going on. No less than François Truffaut referred to it as “a beautiful illustration of silent filming.” I’m certainly not going to argue with that, but there are others. The scene where the charwoman finds the body, turns and screams but her scream turns into a train whistle could easily have been a direction to the musicians accompanying a silent. The tune Hannay can’t get out of his head – easily built in to that same accompaniment.

I recently saw The Lodger (give it a go if you get the chance, it’s excellent) and it shares a surprising amount with The 39 Steps (the music hall lights are a recurring theme) as well as with his later work (there are a couple of shots recreated almost exactly 30 years later in Psycho). From that point of view, The 39 Steps is a perfect midpoint to Hitch’s career – the silents behind him but Hollywood yet to come and it has elements of both.

He didn’t actually reuse the ‘innocent man on the run from both the police and the villains’ idea as often as you might think he did (I think North by Northwest is the closest?) but the spirit of one man pitted against the world comes up again and again in, amongst others, Strangers on a Train and Spellbound.

By Originally published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Originally published by William Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a book first. The film's better.

However, you don’t want to watch 39 Steps because it’s an interesting bit of movie history, you want to watch it because it’s…

…gloriously implausible

In a number of ways, The 39 Steps makes no logical sense. For example:

  • Why do the spies break into his flat, kill the woman, then leave and wait politely outside for him to walk out in broad daylight so they can kill him in the street?
  • After shooting Hannay, could our friend with the missing finger not have checked for a pulse before assuming he didn’t have a bible in his pocket?
  • Can you get off the Forth Bridge on foot?

However, none of this matters in the slightest. I’m as happy as anyone to scoff at plot holes in second rate Hollywood product (hello Prometheus), but when it’s carried off with a much brio as this it just seems improper. The story rattles along so quickly and so joyously that you have neither the time nor the inclination to question anything.

I think that’s something Hollywood’s lost. Hitchcock gets through his story in 86 minutes, a remake today (no thanks!) would probably add an hour to that. More talk, less excitement, more time to worry about boring logic.

Hitchcock addressed his indifference to logic directly in his famous interview with Truffaut, saying that “we should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull.” As much as anything, to me that shows his total mastery of film. When you can control the audience as well as him, they’ll accept anything.

…pretty hot

Madeleine Carroll (Legion of Honour winner, by the way!) taking her stockings off….

By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brianboru100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Genuine war hero. From West Bromwich. Didn't know either 
of those things!

…an organisation of spies collecting information on behalf of…aaarrgghhh *grips chest and collapses in melodramatic fashion*

Sources:

  • François Truffaut, Hitchcock by François Truffaut (1983, English language translation 1984)