We are getting close to Memorial Day, and it struck me that war movies probably utilize more bit part actors and extras than any other genre. Many war films use real troops, supplied by request to the government, to capture the realism, and supply enough bodies to fill the screen.
The General is a silent film by Buster Keaton about a steam locomotive that was stolen by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Keaton plays an engineer in the South who tries to recover the missing loco named The General. This is considered one of the best silent films every made...certainly Keaton's best film. It is based in fact, although it stretches historical truth quite a bit. I was awestruck by the stunts Keaton performed, with great risk to life and limb.
Keaton was able to use reserve troops as extras for the battle scenes. He still didn't have enough men, so he filmed all of the Union side, then they all changed uniforms and he filmed all of the Confederate side. The big battle scene near the end of the film caused a forest fire, and the troops helped put the fire out before it got too far out of control.
The General is a film that you should not miss. I recommend that you consider buying it, rather than renting from Netflix, though. I recently rented it and the soundtrack was horrible! They chose classical music that had no relation to the scenes. Part of the fun of silent films is matching the music to what is happening on screen.
Charles Chaplin was a musician as well as a film maker and actor. He wrote the music to many of his films. When you see the film with the correct music, it is a treat. Try the Gold Rush or even City Lights (technically a sound film) for the best of Chaplin's music.
One last side note, you can see bits of The General in the 1991 Micheal J. Fox film, Doc Hollywood. The town is having their squash festival, and they are showing a silent film on the wall of a building while Fox is dreaming about Julie Warner.
BTW, the actual locomotive, The General, still exists. It was built in 1855 and is in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, GA. Well, I guess that's two last side notes.