Watch the Most Expensive Scene in Silent Film History: The Train Wreck From Buster Keaton “The General” (1926)

Were it filmed today, the set piece of Buster Keaton’s The Gen­er­al (watch it online here) would sure­ly be com­put­er gen­er­at­ed.

The stu­dio would insist upon that.

We like to think Keaton, who both direct­ed and starred, would fight them tooth and nail.

Elab­o­rate stunts thrilled him, and what could be more thrilling — or cost­ly — than send­ing a 26-ton loco­mo­tive over a burn­ing train tres­tle in hopes the struc­ture would crum­ble, plung­ing the loco­mo­tive into the riv­er below?

The fact that he had but one chance to get it right must’ve upped the ante in a good way.

The Cot­tage Grove, Ore­gon Sen­tinel report­ed that the silent leg­end, hav­ing spent the sum­mer film­ing on loca­tion in and around town, was “hap­py as a kid” to have nailed this most chal­leng­ing shot.

The mak­ing of silent film’s most expen­sive stunt seems like it would make an excel­lent sub­ject for a movie, but for the fact there was very lit­tle dra­ma sur­round­ing it.

Keaton ingra­ti­at­ed him­self with the res­i­dents of Cot­tage Grove, host­ing week­ly base­ball games and pre­sid­ing over the wed­ding recep­tion of a local and a crew mem­ber. 1500 locals — half the town’s pop­u­la­tion — found work behind the scenes or as extras.

His rela­tion­ship with his his 24-year-old costar, Sen­nett Bathing Beau­ty Mar­i­on Mack, was strict­ly pro­fes­sion­al.

When his wife raised objec­tions to his plans to ride the loco­mo­tive across the tres­tle as cam­eras rolled, he capit­u­lat­ed, installing a papi­er-mâche dum­my as engi­neer. (At least one of the 3000 spec­ta­tors who lined the banks to wit­ness the stunt was fooled, when the dummy’s sev­ered head float­ed past.)

And although the sequence cost a shock­ing­ly expen­sive $42,000 — rough­ly $600,000 in today’s mon­ey — it left lit­tle to chance. Car­pen­ters spent two weeks build­ing a 215-foot-long tres­tle 34 feet above the Row Riv­er, then sawed part­way through the sup­port­ing struc­tures to make them extra vul­ner­a­ble to the explo­sive charge that would be trig­gered soon after action was called. Engi­neers con­struct­ed a down­stream dam so the water lev­el would be high enough to receive the train.

The com­mu­ni­ty was so invest­ed by the time cam­eras rolled, the local gov­ern­ment declared July 23 a hol­i­day, so the entire town would be free to attend. (The Sen­tinel not­ed how ear­li­er in the sum­mer Keaton him­self approached overzeal­ous onlook­ers to “cour­te­ous­ly request, ‘Will you please stand back so as not to cast a shad­ow on the pic­ture?’”)

The stunt went off with­out a hitch, its one and only take cap­tured by six strate­gi­cal­ly posi­tioned cam­era­men, but The Gen­er­al, one of the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute’s top 20 films of all time and Keaton’s per­son­al favorite, flopped with both crit­ics and the pub­lic. Its domes­tic box office returns were a mere $50,000 above the $750,000 it cost to make. It caused stu­dios to rethink how much con­trol to grant Keaton.

The train remained where it had land­ed until WWII, when it was fished up and sal­vaged for its iron. Accord­ing to a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Cot­tage Grove His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, a few left­over pieces of track and steel were still vis­i­ble as recent­ly as 2006. A mur­al in town com­mem­o­rates The Gen­er­al, its star, and the 10 weeks of 1926 when Cot­tage Grove was the “HOLLYWOOD OF OREGON” (or so the Cot­tage Grove Sen­tinel claimed at the time.)

The Gen­er­al enjoys a ster­ling rep­u­ta­tion with silent film buffs, though its Civ­il War sto­ry­line is out of step with 2021 — Keaton’s char­ac­ter aspires to join the Con­fed­er­a­cy, and the Union sol­diers are the bad guys whose train plum­mets into the Row.

Per­haps nos­tal­gia will shift to Cot­tage Grove’s role in Stand By Me — anoth­er pic­ture in which trains loom large.

Fail­ing that, the Cham­ber of Com­merce has a repli­ca of Ani­mal House’s Death­mo­bile they could put on dis­play …

Learn more about the film­ing of The General’s most cel­e­brat­ed scene and Keaton’s vis­it to Cot­tage Grove in Julien Smith’s fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle for the Alta Jour­nal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

31 Buster Keaton Films: “The Great­est of All Com­ic Actors,” “One of the Great­est Film­mak­ers of All Time”

A Super­cut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amaz­ing Stunts

Some of Buster Keaton’s Great, Death-Defy­ing Stunts Cap­tured in Ani­mat­ed Gifs

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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