The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)
“A true-life spy story of ultimate suspense. High speed and inconceivable bravery!”
Director: Francis D. Lyons
Cast: Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff York
Synopsis: During the Civil War Union spy Andrews and his men volunteer to steal a Confederate train and drive it to Union territory while destroying the Confederate railway system along the way.
Although the story within The Great Locomotive Chase served as the basis for Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedy The General, this Disney adventure isn’t a remake of that movie. In fact, it’s far more historically accurate than Keaton’s version and is given a straightforward dramatic treatment by screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin.
Fess Parker, taking time off from his duties for Disney as Davey Crockett, plays James J. Andrews, a Union spy who is given the task of travelling deep into the South to steal a train and then travel back North, destroying track, cutting telegraph wires and blowing up bridges in order to cut off supplies to Rebel troops. The movie’s first twenty minutes drag a little as Andrews goes about recruiting a group of men to accompany him on his mission, but wisely chooses not to attempt to give all of these men equal screen time (there’s about sixteen of them). Instead, it focuses on just a handful of them, chief of which are William Pittenger (John Lupton), who also serves as the film’s narrator, and Bill Campbell (Jeff York), a hot-headed brawler who struggles to cope with all the anti-Union sentiment once he’s deep in enemy territory.
The men travel in twos and threes to their assigned location, and the theft of the train goes without a hitch, despite the unusual number of men climbing aboard at one small station arousing the suspicions of the train’s conductor, William A. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter). Fortunately for the mission, Fuller voices his suspicions to Andrews, who manages to convince him that they’re spies working for the South. Naturally, Fuller soon realises he’s been hoodwinked when he sees his train being driven away while he’s enjoying a cup of tea in a station restaurant. Fuller isn’t one to allow the disparity in top speed between a locomotive and a man, and runs along the track in pursuit of the stolen train.
Had Andrews and his men come up against a man with less grit and determination than Fuller, their mission might well have succeeded. But the Confederate man is so dogged in pursuit of those who purloined his train that he somehow manages to overcome every obstacle they throw in his way. Director Francis D. Lyon generates a lot of suspense during this lengthy chase sequence, without ever really taking sides: the film seems to admire the Union men’s ingenuity in their attempts to get away from Fuller and his men as much as it does Fuller’s sheer persistence.
Although true, the story is the stuff of schoolboy adventure, and as such the film does little in the way of developing much in the way of character amongst the leads. Parker delivers a dour performance, and only Jeff York as the troublesome Campbell (who nevertheless comes good in the end) really stands out. This film, incidentally, reunites much of the cast of Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, a combination of two episodes from the TV series which Disney released theatrically in 1956.
(Reviewed 4th December 2013)