The plot turns on a chase between two locomotives and a railroad worker, played by Keaton, initially on a handcart and later on another locomotive. Although played for laughs in the film, many of the events actually occurred in a chase through Georgia and Tennessee between trains pulled by locomotives named The General and The Texas. The event was also the subject of the film The Great Locomotive Chase.
Keaton performs lots of dangerous physical stunts on and around the moving train, which include jumping from the engine to the boxcar, sitting on the cow-catcher, and running along the roof.
The climax of the film includes a spectacular moment where a bridge (sabotaged by Keaton's character) collapses as a railroad train crosses it (compare The Bridge on the River Kwai). This scene was one of the single most expensive shots in motion picture history at the time, though Keaton felt it was worth it. The production company could not afford to remove the wreckage after the scene was filmed, so they left it there, where it became a minor tourist attraction for nearly twenty years. The metal of the train was salvaged for scrap during World War II.
The General received only mediocre reviews upon its release. It was not one of Keaton's biggest box office successes, which disappointed him as he considered it to be the best of all his movies. Audiences and critics would later agree with him after re-considering the film, and it is now considered a classic.
The film is consistently in the Internet Movie Database's list of top 250 films, was #18 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Laughs, and has been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.