The Great Locomotive Chase: Disney’s live action Civil War Western featuring Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter is an exciting, edge-of-the-seat adventure

“The Great Locomotive Chase (1956),” starring Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter, was the second live action film produced by Walt Disney. The film tells the real story of the Andrews Raid that took place during the early days of the American Civil war.

James J. Andrews was a Kentucky-born civilian serving as a secret agent and scout in Tennessee for the union during the American Civil war. In the spring of 1862. Andrews proposed a daring raid to Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel, commander of the Federal troops in middle Tennessee, that would destroy the Western and Atlantic Railroad as a useful reinforcement and supply link for the Confederacy to Chattanooga from Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. Andrews’ proposal was a combined operation; General Mitchel and his forces would first move on Chattanooga; then, the Andrews’ Raid would promptly destroy the rail line between Chattanooga and Atlanta. These essentially simultaneous actions would bring about the capture of Chattanooga, thereby splitting the confederacy into two and bringing the civil war to an early end. Andrews’ Raid was intended to deprive the Confederates of the integrated use of the railways to respond to a Union advance, using their interior lines of communication The plan was to steal a train on its run north towards Chattanooga, stopping to damage or destroy track, bridges, telegraph wires, and track switches behind them, so as to prevent the Confederate Army from being able to move troops and supplies from Atlanta to Chattanooga. The raiders recruited by Andrews, consisting mostly of volunteering Union soldiers from Ohio Regiments, planned to cross through the Federal siege lines on the outskirts of Chattanooga and rejoin Mitchel’s army.

The raid began on April 12, 1862, when the regular morning passenger train from Atlanta, with the locomotive General, stopped for breakfast at the Lacy Hotel at Big Shanty. The raiders took the General and the train’s three boxcars, which were behind the tender in front of the passenger cars. The passenger cars were left behind. Andrews had previously obtained from the work crew a crowbar for tearing up track. The train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men, chased the stolen train, first on foot, then by a handcar belonging to a work crew shortly north of Big Shanty. Since Andrews intended to stop periodically to perform acts of sabotage and Locomotives of the time normally averaged 15 miles per hour, a determined pursuer, even on foot, could conceivably have caught up with the train before it reached Chattanooga. As the raiders had stolen a regularly scheduled train on a railroad with only one track, they needed to keep to that train’s timetable. If they reached a siding ahead of schedule, they had to wait there until scheduled southbound trains passed them before they could continue north. For this reason, the raiders were delayed at Kingston for over an hour, this gave Fuller all the time he needed to close the distance. The raiders finally pulled out of Kingston only moments before Fuller’s arrival. Fuller then took command of the southbound locomotive Texas, running it backwards. The raiders now never got far ahead of Fuller and never had enough time to stop and take up a rail to halt the Texas. Destroying the railway behind the hijacked train was a slow process. The raiders were too few in number and were too poorly equipped with the proper railway track tools and demolition equipment, and the rain that day made it difficult to burn the bridges. Finally, at milepost 116.3, north of Ringgold, Georgia, just 18 miles from Chattanooga, with the locomotive out of fuel, Andrews’s men abandoned the General and scattered. Andrews and all of his men were caught within two weeks and Mitchel’s attack on Chattanooga ultimately failed. The Confederates quickly executed some of the raiders as spies, including Andrews; some others were able to flee. Some of these raiders were the first to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Congress for their actions. As a civilian, Andrews was not eligible for the honor.

Andrews’ Raid

Disney’s 1956 historical Western, “The Great Locomotive Chase” is based on the above mentioned true story of the famous Andrews Raid during the American Civil War. Employing authentic Civil War era equipment borrowed from the B&O Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and filmed on the (now-defunct) Tallulah Falls Railway near Clayton, Georgia, the film is one of those rare cases when a big golden age Hollywood studio got it absolutely right while adapting a real-life adventure story to the big screen. This was not the first big screen treatment of this story; It had been filmed before, and that version was one of the most famous silent comedies ever made, the Buster Keaton film “The General.” However, apart from the fact that Keaton’s film was a comedy, while this one was a straight up drama\adventure, Keaton’s film was told from the perspective of the South, whereas in this version, the story is told from the northern perspective, but both sides get equal importance in the narrative. In the early 1950s, when Walt Disney decided to move into Live action films, he wanted to make either an adaptation “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” or “The Great Locomotive Chase.” His theatre owners preferred 20,000 Leagues so he opted to make that film first, but Disney never forgot about his idea for “The Great Locomotive Chase” and it wasn’t long before he was determined to make it. The story was a favorite of Disney’s because he loved trains. He had a miniature train in his garden at his house and he was used to riding a train around his studios on his weekly television series “Disneyland”. He was also a civil war buff, and while growing up in Missouri, he was enchanted by the civil war stories told by both the union sympathizers and Confederate sympathizers. He became interested in the story of the “The Great Locomotive Chase” because it gave equal importance to both sides in the war. And, true to Disney’s love for trains, the real stars of the film where going to be the authentic Civil-war-era railroad equipment, especially locomotives. Since the locomotives used in the actual Chase, though well preserved, were not in working order, they converted two working 4-4-0’s of nearly identical appearance: “The William Mason,” which became “The General,” and “Inyo,” which became “Texas.” 

The film is bookended by the scenes of the presentation of the ‘medal of Honor’ to surviving members of the raid. The main body of the film dealing with the Andrews Raid and the locomotive chase is narrated via a flashback by one of the surviving members of the raid and recipient of the medal, William Pittenger. Pittenger remembers of the time in April 1862 when he was one of the many Union soldiers posted outside Nashville. There he came into contact with James J. Andrews, who recruits him, fellow soldier, Campbell, and fifteen other soldiers for his raid. Over the next few days the men make their way south through Confederate territory in small groups so as not to draw suspicion. Pittenger and Campbell rendezvous with Andrews and two others at an inn on the Tennessee River, but heavy rain causes Andrews to delay the attempt for a day. On the morning of April 12, Andrews and his men board a northbound train, pulled on that day by a locomotive named “the General.” While on the train Andrews is approached by the conductor William A. Fuller, who is suspicious about Andrews and the men he boarded with. Andrews shows Fuller a letter from Brigadier General Beauregard. This convinces Fuller that Andrews and his men are Confederate agents. While the passengers and crew are eating, Andrews and the men drop the passenger cars, hijack the engine, and proceed north. Witnessing this, Fuller pursues them on foot along with engineer Jeff Cain and foreman Anthony Murphy. Andrews and the men continue on, pulling up track to block any trains from the south and cutting telegraph wires to stop any towns ahead of them from being alerted. Fuller and his men continue to pursue the raiders; first on foot, then by handcar, then on the small yard engine, Yonah. On reaching Kingston. Fuller alerts the station master of the situation; Fuller and his men take a locomotive, the William R. Smith, waiting on the side track and continue until they reach another section of removed track. Fuller and Murphy then wave down Pete Bracken and his southbound express freight and they continue the chase with his engine, the Texas running in reverse.

The raiders make several attempts to stop their pursuers but barely manage to even slow them down.  With “the General” out of wood and water and unable to continue, Andrews decides to stop and fight. However, before they can, Confederate cavalry approach. Fuller arrives and reclaims his train as the raiders, having failed in their mission, flee into the wilderness and try to make it back home. But they are all caught and sentenced to be hanged. The raiders affects a daring jailbreak just before their hanging.  Eight of the raiders, including Pittenger, manage to escape while the rest are recaptured. Before his execution, Andrews requests a final visit from Fuller, who begrudgingly shows up. Andrews expresses hopes that Fuller will not hold a grudge for deceiving him, acknowledging that they both fought in their own ways. Andrews laments that he won’t live to see the end of the war, when both sides come together and shake hands. He asks Fuller if they could do so instead. Fuller obliges, marking the end of their war and putting Andrews at peace. The film then cuts back to the opening scene where Pittenger and the rest are being honored by the War Department. The film ends with Pittenger thanking the War secretary, Edwin Stanton, on behalf of all the raiders.

Though Disney made very few memorable live action movies prior to the 1990s, there has been some well remembered gems like “20000 Leagues” and “Mary Poppins.” Unfortunately, “The Great Locomotive Chase” is not particularly a well remembered film. Most unfairly, i must say. This is a film made with great craftsmanship, passion and commitment, and maybe it was the middling Box office success of the film and the downbeat nature of the subject that has let the film slide from public memory. I have already spoken about my love for trains (older the better), and my love for films with trains as its locus of action. So, naturally i love this film very much. Apart from that the film also mixes my favorite genres: Western, War and historical\period drama. It’s also a great cinematic experience, what with ‘the chase’ being the most cinematic of all elements; a chase sequence can only be fully enjoyed through the cinematic medium. The film runs a crisp 85 minutes, and the 50 minutes in its middle is fully devoted to the chase. It’s a truly exhilarating experience to see those vintage locomotives chasing one another on vintage tracks against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful outdoor scenery. The film is photographed in rich color and widescreen Cinemascope by veteran cinematographer Charles Boyle, who shot several Technicolor Westerns in the ’50s. The chase sequence is superbly edited by Ellsworth Hoagland, who not only not let the tension flag at any moment, but also make sure that the audiences are never confused about the geography in which the chase is taking place. The production design of the film is also very attractive and authentic, immersing us totally in that period, while Paul J. Smith contributes a a very effective score. Francis D. Lyon directs the film at a sprightly pace, especially during the train chase sequence which is full of sustained excitement. The film is pretty much stripped down, plot wise, and it concentrates solely on the chase and the mechanics surrounding it. So, the film moves at a brisk pace and we are always involved in the proceedings. The film is truly a visual treat.

Of course, this means that there is absolutely no exploration of the socio-political issues involved in this war. There is no mention of slavery; we get to see a few black\slave characters here and there and that’s it. Politically, this a ’50s film, designed to unite the country that was reeling under red scare and the fear of the bomb. This is after all a Disney movie, so the attempt here is always to provide ‘wholesome’ family entertainment. It does not intend to tangle with prickly plot elements. Though there are some ‘swearing’ that’s quite odd for a Disney film, but even here characters in the film take pains to convince each other (and the audiences) that words like ‘Damn the Yankees’ are not swear words. One thing i noticed about the film is that despite most of the proceedings being rather rousing, there is a pall of sadness hanging over it. The main story being told in flashback, the main chase\mission itself being a failure, and the heroes reminiscing about their lost leader (who was hanged to death) all adds to this feeling. Though the film skirts uncomfortable issues, one issue the film goes a bit into is about the dirty business of espionage. Contrary to what James Bond films have us believe, spying is quite an ugly job. The spies wins the confidence and affection of their enemies and then they have to deceive them. We see both Pittenger and Andrews agonizing over this dirty nature of their job; while Pittenger remains conflicted about this, Andrews’ explanation is that ‘He believes in a Federal Union.’ Like all great spies, they find refuge in patriotism to justify their actions. Also, quite bloodless and devoid of any gun battles, the film does has a lengthy brutal fistfight where we feel the desperation of the Unionist raiders in escaping from the Confederate prison. And, even though we never see the hanging of any of the raiders (including Andrews), the film does not skirt this plot element. One of the reasons why the film was a flop was: a) the Andrews raid failed, b) the raiders attempts to escape from the prison failed and c)Most of the raiders, including the leader, was hung. This is a series of anticlimaxes; and the film did not shy away from portraying this. Of course, this did not help the film’s box office prospects, but it made the film more authentic and maybe even important. I also felt that the first twenty minutes, before the start of the chase, and the last 15 minutes, after the end of the chase, are also pretty uninteresting. At least in the beginning, despite Andrews doubling (or tripling) down the exposition elements, there is the element of suspense building up to the stealing of the train. But the final fifteen minutes are a slog, especially after that exhilarating, lengthy chase\action sequence.

Now in a film like this, the characters are all going to be pretty one-dimensional and the actors really won’t get many opportunities to showcase their skills. Also, this is an ensemble piece, hence the opportunity for any one actor to make a mark is also limited. Of all the cast members, it’s Jeffrey Hunter, who plays Fuller, the conductor of the train, who stands out. Hunter gives an almost superhuman dimension to Fuller’s persistence and drive in reclaiming his train. Fuller is cunning, resourceful, obsessive and energetic and he finally emerges successful. If it wasn’t for Fuller’s fierce persistence, the Andrews’ Raid would have been a success. Hunter is very convincing as Fuller- whether chasing ‘The General’ on foot, or by a handcar, or in a locomotive, and even in the final scenes with Andrews, he’s in commanding form throughout. Hunter was a busy man in 1956, he was in three movies that year: “The Searchers” (with John Wayne), “The Proud Ones” (with Robert Ryan) and this one. But even though Hunter would go on to do big films , like the 1961 version of “King of Kings”(as Jesus, no less), Hunter’s career never caught fire, and he never emerged as an A-list leading man. But in this film he’s the ‘hero; and he radiates all the charisma of a driven patriot who obsessively pursues his enemy. The casting of Fess Parker as the heroic Andrews is one of the big negatives of the film. This role of an All-American hero and charismatic leader of Union raiders required the star power, charisma and talents of someone like Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck; or at least Burt Lancaster or “20,000 Leagues” star Kirk Douglas. Fess Parker had very successfully played Davy Crockett for Disney and that maybe the reason why Disney cast him as another American hero who lived and died for his country, but he is very ineffective in the film. He is totally bland and wooden and I didn’t buy him for a moment as this very cunning and courageous leader who could devise and execute such an audacious plan. It speaks volumes for the quality of the filmmaking that such an uninteresting lead actor at the center did not damage the film much, though a more able actor would have definitely raised the film to another level. The fine supporting cast of the film is made up of Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey, Don Megowan, and John Lupton. Among them, Jeff York, playing William Campbell, the ultra-patriotic Unionist with a quick temper who’s always itching for a fight, and John Lupton, as the mild-mannered William Pittenger, who narrates the story in flashback, are the standouts.


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