Whilst DW Griffith and King Vidor chose the serious route in war films of that era, probably the lightest touch to a war film came in the form of The General, a Buster Keaton classic that was released in 1927. It was Keaton’s most ambitious film, though at the time it was mauled by the critics and had a poor box office showing.
Again, set in the civil war era, this was a film that relied on slapstick humor and sight gags to bring light relief to a serious situation. What sounds as though it might be trite and poorly handled on paper is in fact a masterpiece of cinema, with Keaton’s expensive gambles on stunts (especially the scenes involving the namesake train of the film’s title) are an absolute joy to watch unfold.
The film’s main storyline is actually based on a true story from the time of the civil war called “Daring and Suffering – A History of the Great Railway Adventure” by Lieutenant William Pittinger and centers on a raid involving twenty four spies on a Confederate train near Georgia in the early 1860s. Keaton plays a Southern Confederate engineer who is in hot pursuit of the train, whilst similarly trying to entice and ensnare the woman he loves.
Much of the plot relies on Keaton’s deadpan reactions to what is happening. They make the film so watchable, so much more able to elicit a response from the viewer. The film ends with one of the most spectacular (and also the most expensive) stunts in the history of silent cinema. It would be unfair to spoil it here, but it is well worth watching to the end.