The Great Locomotive Chase:
Keaton's The General and Faulkner's The Unvanquished


     A historical event during the Civil War, what is called "The Great Locomotive Chase" or "Andrews' Raid," will show us a mysterious interrelationship between William Faulkner and Buster Keaton.  Keaton paraphrased this episode in his film The General (1926) based on William Pittenger's Daring and Suffering: A History of The Great Railroad Adventure (1864).  Faulkner inserted the episode in his short story, "Raid" (1934), when he revised it for his novel, The Unvanquished (1938).  When asked in Virginia University what book of his he would advise be read first, he recommended The Unvanquished, because it is easy to read, compared to the others (FU, 2).  However, some parts of the novel are not so easy to read.  For example, the fist paragraph of the novel is rhetorically very complicated, while the same part of the original story published in the Saturday Evening Post is very simple.  Such difficult parts came from the revision Faulkner carried out when he edited six of the seven stories published earlier in popular magazines.  The first five stories appeared in the Post: "Ambuscade," "Retrea," "Raid" in 1934; "The Unvanquished" [revised as "Riposte in Terito"] and "Vendèe" in 1936.  The sixth, "Skirmish at Sartoris," was published in the Scribner's in 1935.  He newly wrote the seventh story, "An Odor of Verbena," for the novel. 

      The first six stories for such popular magazines were written for remuneration, to sustain his family, or pay taxes, repay the housing loan for his mansion Rowan Oak and other expenses.  Faulkner wrote in a letter about one of the stories, "As far as I am concerned, while I have to write trash, I don't care who buys it, as long as they pay the best price I can get . . . " (SL, 84).  The plots, chronology, narrative structure, and style of the stories are simple and easy enough for the general readers to follow; and Faulkner scornfully called them "a pulp series" (SL, 84).  When revising them, he attempted to improve them so as to make them worthy of the Faulknerian brand.  As Joanne Creighton pointed out, "most of the significant revision takes place in the first three stories, and only relatively minor changes—that for the most part improve stylistics rather than alter meaning and execution—are made in the latter three" (73).  Although she admits that the revision and the new story "made the total volume vastly different from the sum of the earlier magazine stories" (73), the revision itself was not so drastic.

      The six stories are basically adventures of a Southern white boy, Bayard Sartoris and a black boy, Ringo during the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.  The plots of the stories are constructed on the pattern of "escape-chase" or that in reversal.  For example, the two boys in "Ambuscade" attempted to shoot a Union soldier but the bullet hit his horse.  Escaping from their chasers, they hurriedly run into their house and hide under the skirt of Bayard's grandmother, Rosa Millard.  "Retreat" relates the boys' pursuit of the Unions who stole their mules and the Unions' pursuit of escaping Colonel Sartoris, Bayard's father.  Bayard, Ringo, and Rosa in "Raid" are chasing the Unions who burned their house and escaped with their silver.  The revised stories retain the basic structure of "escape-chase" pattern.  The locomotive chase in "Raid" was inserted in the original story, and it helps strengthen the pattern, although the episode is told by Bayard's cousin, Drusilla.

      Drusilla told Bayard and Ringo of the raid of an engine by the Southerners from the round house in Atlanta under the Union occupation, and of the Southerners' escape on the engine and the Unions' chase on the other one.  Her narration is replaced with Bayard's fluent rhetoric.

     . . . Drusilla told that too: how they [the oppressed, the Southerners] seemed
     to know somehow the very moment when the engine left Atlanta; it was as
     if the gray generals had sent the word, had told them, "You have suffered for
     three years; now we will give to you and your children a glimpse of that for
     which you have suffered and been denied."  Because that's all it was.  I
     know that now
Even the successful passage of a hundred engines with
     trains of cars could not have changed the situation or its outcome; certainly
     not two free engines shrieking along a hundred yards apart up that
     drowsing solitude of tack . . . . "The other one, the Yankee one, was right behind
     it," Drusilla said.  "But they never caught it.  Then the next day they came and
     tore the track up. . . ."(U, 110-12)  [Italics mine]

The italicized words show Bayard's retrospective point of view.  As Creighton pointed out, "the narrator of the magazine stories is an adolescent, while the narrator of the revised stories is a man looking back upon his childhood experiences" (74). The alteration of the perspective allows Bayard not only to tell retrospectively exciting experiences during and after the war, but also to make a new interpretation of them.  There are two Bayards: the adolescent Bayard who was excited with the locomotive chase, and the other who looks back it and interprets its meaning as a man.

     In the other revised stories, for example, in "Ambuscade," we can find the same kind of words like these: ". . . before we could engender between us and hold intact the pattern of recapitulant mimic furious victory like a cloth, a shield between ourselves and reality, between us and fact and doom." (U, 4); "that odor in his [Bayard's father's] and beard and flesh too which I believed was the smell of powder and glory, the elected victorious but know better now . . . " (U, 11).  These revised parts make it clear that as a boy Bayard escaped from the stern reality of life and was always chasing fantasy, but as a man he made his mind to accept the reality as it was.  His decision is clarified in the last chapter, "An Odor of Verbena."   Bayard, expected to kill B. J. Redmond who shot his father to death according to the old Southern code, bravely goes to meet and talk to him without a pistol in spite of fear that Redmond might shoot him.  The meeting ends in Bayard's victory, and Redmond stealthily leaves Jefferson.  This can be interpreted as an altered pattern of "escape-chase": Bayard in pursuit of his father's murderer and Redmond escaping from his killer.  Through the hardships after the war, Bayard has learned to confront reality, not escape from it.  As for the locomotive chase, boy Bayard was excited at the Southerners' victory over the Northerners, and he escaped from reality into fantasy.  However, man Bayard knows that it was only a temporary victory: "I [Bayard] don't think it was intended to do that.  It was like a meeting between two iron knights of the old time, not for material gain but for principle—honor denied with honor, courage denied with courage . . ." (U, 111) .   

     James Hinkle and Robert McCoy gave a comment on "The Great Locomotive Chase" in their Reading Faulkner: The Unvanquished:

     . . . there is one enormous difference between the story as Drusilla tells it
     and the way history (or Buster Keaton's famous silent film, "The General")
     records the event: it was not a Confederate band which captured a Union
     locomotive from a Union roundhouse; it was a Union group led by James
     J. Andrews of Ohio which made off with a Confederate engine ("The General")
     and outran for 90 miles all Confederate attempts to catch or block them.  (104)

Hinkle and McCoy's explanation is right except for one point: that is, in saying that Buster Keaton's film actually records the event.  His film is based on Pittenger's record of Andrews' Raid, but Keaton, as a comedian and director, intended to shoot the film as a comedy.  His intention brought about such an intense pressure of the Confederate Veterans of the South on Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway that the railway had to withdraw its permission to use in the film the real engine, the General [ keaton1.html]. 

    The first half of the movie follows the recorded event, of course blending fact and fiction into the comic story.  Just one year after the outbreak of the Civil War, on April 12, 1862, the raid was carried out.  The object of the raid was destruction of the critical line of the Confederate armies.  A Northern spy and his raiders planned to steal a northbound locomotive, to burn bridges, and to tear up track and telegraph lines.  At Big Shanty, Georgia, while all the crew and passengers left the train to have breakfast, the raiders stole the train.  On noticing that the General was stolen by the Yankees, Johnnie Gray, the engineer played by Keaton, started to chase them to get back his beloved engine and his lover, Annabelle, who happened to be on the train and was taken away by them.  Although Annabelle's episode is a fiction, the raid of the General by the Union soldiers and the locomotive chase by a Confederate crew on another engine, the Texas, is based on the historical fact.  In the film, Johnnie on the Texas runs after the General despite any disturbances by the Yankees.  The General and the Texas made a great chase, and the Texas could not catch up with the General.  This is true as to the fact, but according to the record, the Yankees had no choice but to leave the General eighteen miles away from Chattanooga, Tennessee, their destination, because of lack of fuel and water.  Within a week, all of them were captured.  Andrews and seven more raiders were hanged.  Out of the remaining fourteen, eight young soldiers succeeded in breaking jail and reached the Union line, and the other six were exchanged for Confederate prisoners in 1863.  They were presented the first Medals of Honor ever awarded.   For the Unions, the raid was successful, and the raiders were brave heroes. 

      A far more important fact Hinkle and McCoy did not point out is this: The General does not end with this locomotive chase, but the more imaginative latter half of the film has the other locomotive chase.  The latter half begins with the scene where Johnnie manages to creep into the Union army headquarters under cover of darkness.  He happens to overhear their next day's plan of attacking on the Rock River Bridge.  He succeeds in rescuing Annabelle, and getting back the General.  They escape on the General to inform the Confederates of the upcoming attack by the Unions.  Then, a great locomotive chase reverse to the historical fact is on: the Unions on the Texas chase after the escaping Southerners. Johnnie and Annabelle on the General.  He and Annabelle try everything they can do to stop the Unions.  At last they set the Rock River Bridge afire, and then they steam into a town where the Confederates are stationed.  To hear the news, the Confederates rush to the river.  On the other hand, the Unions on the Texas force their way across the bridge, and on the way the bridge collapses, the Texas falling into the river.  However, the Union infantry is fording the river.  There, the Unions and the Confederates fight a battle.  Although Johnnie, as the first half of the film showed, is a bad cannoneer, he recklessly fires a cannon, only to send the cannonball to the upstream dam.  Fortunately, this causes the dam to be broken, and a roaring torrent of water washes away the Yankee infantry.  The Confederates win the battle.  Johnnie, the hero, is appointed lieutenant.  The movie ends suggesting the happy marriage between Johnnie and Annabelle.

     The pattern of locomotive chase in the latter half of Keaton's The General and in Faulkner's "Raid" is very similar: Southerners on an engine which they stole from the Northerners are escaping from Northerners chasing after them on the other one.  Another common point is that both of them give temporary victory to the South.  Keaton explained the Confederates' victory over the Unions: "You can always make a villains [sic] out of the Northerners, but you cannot make a villain out of the South.  You can't do that with a motion picture audience . . . . The South lost the war anyhow, so the audience resents it . . . . When the story ended, the South was winning . . . . All this took place in 1862, and the South lost in 1864" [].  Both Faulkner and Keaton described the locomotive chase against the historical fact.  To our surprise, Keaton's film is created earlier than Faulkner's The Unvanquished by twelve years.  It probably can never be known for sure whether Faulkner saw the movie or not, and I would like to give another example which appears to be Keaton's influence on Faulkner. 

A young man in black stops in front of a jeweler's shop, and looks into its show window.  Each clock displayed there shows different time.  Then, he enters the shop, looking around clocks on the walls and the shelves.  He is shocked to see that all the clocks show different time.  He asks the jeweler what time it is.  The jeweler takes his watch out of his pocket, but it does not work.  Any Faulknerian readers might think that these are famous scenes from the second chapter of The Sound and the Fury.  However, they are not those of the novel, but of Keaton's silent movie, Seven Chances

     The young man in the movie, James, is obsessed with time, because he has to get married by 7:00 p.m. on his 27th birthday so as to be bequeathed his grandfather's $7,000,000.  The will was delivered to him in the morning of the very day, and it is urgent for him to find a wife-to-be within half a day.  He proposes his girl friend, Mary, and luckily enough she accepts the proposal.  But soon after that, on knowing that he has to marry "some" girl for a great fortune, Mary gets angry and rejects his proposal.  Then he has to find another girl.  He asks some pretty girls to marry, but each of them does not accept his proposal because he is not a nice fellow and they think he is joking with them.  At a loss he puts in the papers a notice: he falls heir to $7,000,000 and "All he needs is a Bride.  Girl who appears at Broad Street Church In Bridal Costume By 5 O'clock Will Be the Lucky Winner."  This advertisement brings too many candidates there, and he manages to run away from them.  In escaping from them, he loses his watch, which leads to the sequences at the jeweler's.  This is a slapstick comedy with a happy ending: in the long run, James and Mary get married just before 7 o'clock.  His obsession with time is quite different from Quentin's obsession which drives him to suicide.  Yet, can we dismiss the similarities between Keaton's and Faulkner's jeweler's scenes?  Keaton's Seven Chances was produced four years earlier than Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.  The movie premiered in 1925, while the novel was published in 1929.       

     Faulkner was a contemporary of Keaton.  Faulkner was born in 1897 and died in 1962, while Keaton was born in 1895, the year when the motion picture was invented, and died in 1966.  Therefore, it can be said that they must or may have shared the spirit of the times.  Yet, can we turn a blind eye to the similarities of their jeweler's scenes, claiming that they reflect the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century when modern people were obsessed with time; Faulkner described it tragically, and Keaton depicted it comically?  In 1925, Faulkner was in New Orleans, looking forward to sailing for Europe.  Maybe he saw the movie, or maybe not.  It is impossible to give any proof that Faulkner saw Seven Chances, but I believe that there is a kind of intertexuality between the film and the novel as well as between The General and The Unvanquished.

     Then, why did Faulkner choose the Civil War?  It is partly because he lived in the early twentieth century when "popular writers, professional historians, genealogists, historical preservationists, and anyone interested in the past ransacked southern history . . . gathering the pieces that would create a new vision of the South as a place with a special tradition rooted in its history" (Wilson, 12).  Faulkner wrote some other Civil War tales in the 1930s.  Some of them are unpublished short stories, such as "Rose of Lebanon" (1930), which was revised into "A Return" in 1938, and "Evangeline" (1931).  "Mountain Victory" appeared in 1932 in the Post.  The Civil War casts a shadow on Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936).  Although these stories resulted from his search for the Southern history through his family, we cannot overlook a fact that "Civil War stories were fairly popular in a decade [the '30s] fairly glutted with fiction about the conflict," and that many tales following "a stock narrative pattern . . . by Thomas Nelson Page" appeared in the Post (Donaldson, 182-83).  Under such circumstances, the Post indicated enough interest in "Ambuscade" for Faulkner to continue with his project on Civil War stories (Biography, 847).  It might be said that in a sense Faulkner followed the popular trend of his period and wrote stories reflecting this trend.

     In the same year of the publication of Absalom, Absalom!, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was published.  According to Faulkner, MGM wanted to film Gone with the Wind, but its film rights had been bought by David Selznick.  He wanted to use Clark Gable, but Gable was under contract to MGM.  Of course, they would not let him have Gable.  Rivaling Selznick, they bought the film rights to The Unvanquished for $25,000, and said to Selznick, "if he didn't let them make Gone with the Wind they were going to make a Gone with the Wind of their own . . ." (UF, 252).  Then, Selznick and MGM filmed Gone with the Wind featuring Gable, but MGM did not film The Unvanquished.  Faulkner's statement might be true that they had no intention of making a movie out of his book.  However, judging from the fact that the rights on The Unvanquished were ceded to MGM on the day following its publication (Gresset, 50), they had been interested in Faulkner's Civil War stories.  It would be natural to think that Faulkner revised the stories while being conscious of the possibility of making a film out of the novel.  This might suggest one of the reasons for the insertion of the Great Locomotive Chase episode into the novel. 

     The legend that Faulkner disliked movies has tended to be widely accepted.  His younger brother Murry Falkner writes in his memoir, however, that they often went to see silent movies in their boyhood (49-50).  Based on this biographical information, Lurie suggests: "In addition to the understanding of Hollywood he [Faulkner] gained working as a screenwriter, Faulkner's view of film was informed by the silent movies he had seen as a child" (Luire, 107).  It is appropriate to say that Faulkner, despite his later statements suggesting his dislike for movies, did not resist the influence of the popular culture of his period symbolized by Hollywood movies.  For example, the first scene of The Unvanquished, the two boys' making of "a living map" (U, 3), indicates his cinematic strategies.  Even if he hated Hollywood money, he could sustain his family and pay off his and his wife's debts through working at MGM, 20th Century-Fox and Warner Brothers or selling his works to the studios.  While working in Hollywood, though he pejoratively referred to the experience as "Hollywood hitch" (SL, 255), he must have learned not only techniques of filmmaking but also what kinds of movies attracted the public.  Trains in motion pictures had been very popular among the public since the very beginning of motion pictures, "Arrival of a Train" by Auguste and Louis Lumière (1895).  In Keaton's silent movies, trains often appear: sometimes violently like the train in One Week (1920) and sometimes idyllically like the "Iron Monster" in Our Hospitality (1923).  The insertion of the locomotive chase episode might be interpreted as the reflection of his orientation to Hollywood.  If the novel had been filmed, the episode would have been a real highlight of the movie.

     The locomotive chase episode shows two Faulkners.  As "two separate Quentins" in Absalom, Absalom! (AA, 9), there were two Faulkners: high-culture-oriented Faulkner and popular-culture-oriented Faulkner.  It seems that the two Faulkners were in conflict with each other during the revision.  But the stories did not undergo drastic revision.  This fact suggests that Faulkner did not choose a way to make war on popular culture, but as Bayard accepted harsh reality, so did Faulkner.  He, whether willingly or not, decided to have good relationship with popular culture because the novel was "a potential rival to Gone with the Wind" (Millgate, 170).  Thus, the Unvanquished, through Keaton's films, Hollywood and popular magazines, gives a good example of Faulkner's relationship with popular culture. 



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