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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Great Locomotive Chase
Walt Disney LOVED trains. Model trains, full-size trains, animated trains, historic trains, experimental trains, you name it. If it ran on a rail, he was all over it. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a film based on one of the most famous railroad-related incidents of the Civil War, it not all time. The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the 1862 theft of a Confederate train by Union spies, briefly reignited Walt’s interest in filmmaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the thrilling passion project it should have been.
Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s British films from Treasure Island to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, had very much remained a part of the studio since the UK division folded. Watkin not only wrote the screenplay for The Great Locomotive Chase, he also served as producer for the first and only time in his career. Producing might not have been his forte but he continued to write for Disney for many years.
Watkin’s 1942 novel Marty Markham had provided the basis for the wildly popular Spin And Marty segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. One of the primary directors on that show was a former editor named Francis D. Lyon. Lyon had won an Oscar as one of the editors on the classic boxing film noir Body And Soul. His first two films as director, Crazylegs and The Bob Mathias Story, had both been sports biopics that starred their subjects as themselves. Having cornered the market on that very specific subgenre, Lyon signed on to The Adventures Of Spin And Marty.
Spin And Marty became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, almost rivalling Davy Crockett. Considering the success Disney had repackaging other TV productions for theatrical exhibition, I’m a little surprised that Spin And Marty won’t be appearing in this column (although its stars, Tim Considine, David Stollery and second season addition Annette Funicello, certainly will). Regardless, teaming up the director and the original creator of Spin And Marty on a project must have been a no-brainer.
The choice of who to star in the film was even more obvious. Davy Crockett had turned Fess Parker into an international star. Naturally, Disney had placed Parker under contract and now had to generate projects for him to appear in. The role of James J. Andrews, the civilian Union spy from Kentucky who led the mission, was squarely within Parker’s wheelhouse. Andrews may have had a nicer wardrobe but he was still very much a Crockett type.
Jeffrey Hunter was cast opposite Parker as the persistent train conductor William Fuller. Today, Hunter is probably best remembered among geeks of a certain age as Captain Pike in the original pilot for Star Trek. Back then, Hunter had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. He had appeared in movies like Red Skies Of Montana and Belles On Their Toes but efforts to turn him into a major star hadn’t really clicked. That started to change after John Ford cast him opposite John Wayne in The Searchers, which was released just a few weeks before The Great Locomotive Chase.
Ironically, Ford’s first choice for the part had been none other than Fess Parker. Parker wanted the role badly but Disney refused to let him out of his contract. Hunter later said he didn’t know anything about all that until years after the fact, while Parker said losing the part was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. This would end up being one of several incidents that ended up creating a rift between Fess Parker and Walt Disney.
The rest of the cast was filled out with character actors who would go on to have long associations with the studio. Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey and Don Megowan had all appeared alongside Parker on Davy Crockett. Harry Carey Jr. starred as Triple R Ranch counselor Bill Burnett on Spin And Marty. John Lupton, who narrates the film as Union soldier and chronicler William Pittenger, would later appear in several Disney film and TV productions of the ‘70s. Even the great Slim Pickens pops up briefly as the engineer of the train Fuller commandeers. All of these actors will appear in this column again.
This would be Disney’s first time bringing American history to the big screen (Davy Crockett, of course, having been originally made for television) and Walt was prepared to spare no expense. Peter Ellenshaw again painted meticulous mattes that brought the past to life. Walt himself made sure to guarantee the historical accuracy of the locomotives, working personally with the B&O Railroad Museum to secure period-appropriate trains. Watkin based his screenplay primarily on the account written by Pittenger himself. Artist and historian Wilbur Kurtz was brought on board as a technical advisor, a job he’d previously performed on both Gone With The Wind and Song Of The South. The location chosen was along the disused Tallulah Falls Railway in north Georgia, not too far from where the actual event took place.
All of this research may have resulted in a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events, although Watkin’s script absolutely takes some liberties. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a particularly exciting movie. Trains are wonderful, beautiful pieces of machinery. I’m a huge fan of them myself. But they aren’t very fast. Back then, they topped out around 20 miles per hour. Andrews’ train wasn’t going nearly that fast because they kept stopping to cut telegraph wires, tear up rails and perform other acts of sabotage. When Fuller first takes off in pursuit of the train on foot, it seems at first as though the movie’s entire chase might be a foot race.
The movie seems to be told in increments of 10-15 miles. Andrews’ train gets a little ahead, then stops. Fuller catches up a little bit, deals with whatever shenanigans Andrews has prepared for him, then inches forward again. Every so often, one of Andrews’ more aggressive men will spoil for a fight, only to have Andrews talk him off the ledge. For an ostensible action movie, it’s all very leisurely.
Finally, Fuller succeeds in catching up to his stolen train and Andrews agrees that it’s time to make their stand and fight. But no sooner has he made this declaration than the Cavalry rides in, hoopin’ and hollarin’! Hopelessly outnumbered, Andrews and his men head for the hills, abandoning the train and their mission. The big fight is over before it’s even underway and the whole mission has been for nothing. If you've ever been uncertain about what the term "anticlimactic" means, watch this movie. All will be made clear.
Andrews and his men are eventually captured and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Pittenger comes up with a daring escape plan. The plan works but Andrews sacrifices himself, allowing himself to be recaptured so the rest can get away. In the end, only about half the men make it back to safety, where they become the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The problem here is that the story is being presented as one of great heroics and honor, when it’s really one of defeat and failure. It’s an interesting story but the movie isn’t equipped to frame it in a way that makes sense. Half our heroes are executed and their plan fails but somehow that’s still a triumphant ending? The only winner here is Fuller. He, at least, gets to shake hands with his nemesis in the end and assure him that he was a worthy and honorable opponent. The movie really should have been about him.
Of course, that movie had already been made thirty years earlier. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General was inspired by the exact same incident. Only in this version, Keaton plays the Fuller character (here named Johnnie Gray), the tireless, persistent Southern engineer who pursues his stolen locomotive regardless of whatever obstacle is thrown at him. In terms of historical accuracy, it has relatively little to do with the actual event. But as a movie, it’s a whole lot more fun to watch.
As a comedy, The General is able to make the Union spies the bad guys without anyone raising an eyebrow. The Great Locomotive Chase might be on the right side of history but it’s telling a story where the good guys lose. And yes, this is a very homogenized look at the Civil War that reduces the players to Good Guys and Bad Guys. Don’t look for any larger explorations of the issues surrounding the war here.
On the plus side, that also makes the film relatively inoffensive. African-American characters are mostly absent. Sure, you could choose to be offended by the fact that they somehow made a movie that takes place in Georgia during the Civil War with only three, mostly non-speaking Black characters. But considering Hollywood’s track record with situations like this, silence is probably golden.
The Great Locomotive Chase only did so-so business when it was released in the summer of 1956. But it ended up playing a small role in another landmark event in Walt’s life. Walt’s adopted hometown of Marceline, Missouri, contacted him that year. The city was preparing to open a new municipal swimming pool and wanted to dedicate it to Marceline’s favorite son. Walt and his brother, Roy, agreed to return to their childhood home for a homecoming visit that summer. One of the planned events would be the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase.
If you’ve seen footage or photos of Walt and Roy strolling around Marceline while reminiscing, it most likely came from this trip. This visit became a key part of the myth-making around Walt Disney’s boyhood. The idealized nostalgia of Disneyland’s Main Street USA and films like So Dear To My Heart and Lady And The Tramp now had a basis in reality. Walt would continue to put Marceline up on a pedestal for the rest of his days. It came to represent everything that was good and pure and true about America.
Also on this visit, Walt began making inquiries into buying the old farm where he and his family had lived. He was envisioning another theme park, one that would transport visitors back to a quieter, more idyllic time. Dubbed The Marceline Project for security reasons (Walt knew that property values would skyrocket the second people discovered Disney was coming to town), it was meant to be an actual working farm with living history exhibits and attractions designed by the Disney Imagineers.
Walt’s death in 1966 brought an end to The Marceline Project. Walt had hoped Roy would bring the new park to fruition but by this time, he was completely absorbed in the construction of Walt Disney World, the Disneyland companion park in Florida.
Still, the Disney connection has provided a big boost to the Marceline Chamber of Commerce. At the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase, Walt told the audience of children, “You are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.” Any town would be thrilled to ride the coattails of a quote like that for generations and Marceline has certainly done just that. In 2001, the town opened the Walt Disney Hometown Museum to celebrate Walt’s centennial year.
As for the movie itself, nobody really talks much about The Great Locomotive Chase anymore. It isn’t available on Disney+ and has not yet been released on Blu-ray. The city of Adairsville, Georgia, holds an annual Great Locomotive Chase Festival the first weekend in October (unfortunately cancelled this year, due to COVID) to commemorate the actual event. I’ve never been but I’m guessing that if any movies are included in their festivities, it’s Buster Keaton’s The General and not this one.
VERDICT: Disney Minus