Walt Disney was a man with ideas far ahead of his time. As television was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the 1950s, Disney's Disneyland TV series was ground-breaking and gave viewers something they'd never seen before. These were smart shows too, shows about culture, the world, nature, and maybe most memorably, history. Kids loved history (kinda still do I guess). In one of his lesser known efforts that doesn't have the reputation of his other ventures, a historical feature film, 1956's The Great Locomotive Chase.
It's 1862 and the Civil War is still in its early stages both in the east in Virginia and in the south too in Tennessee and Georgia. Among all the fighting, one man, James Andrews (Fess Parker), is making a reputation as a blockade runner, supplying the Confederate forces with much-needed supplies. In reality though, Andrews is a spy working for the Union. Now, he's been tasked with a dangerous mission. In hopes of helping a surprise Union advance, Andrews and a small detachment of men must travel deep into Georgia and try to destroy as much of a key railroad as they can so Confederate reinforcements can't reach the fighting in time. What's Andrews' plan though? Well, the odds are against him. Not too far north of Atlanta, he and his men will steal a locomotive and race up the line, destroying track, burning bridges, and ripping down telegraph wires, all the while hoping to stay ahead of pursuers. Can they do it? It's going to take some luck and some impeccable planning and timing.
This 1956 Disney historical drama is actually based on a true story from the Civil. With an obvious SPOILER warning, read about it HERE. This is a story that may seem familiar to movie fans with Buster Keaton telling the same story way back in 1926 with the classic silent film, The General (a gem if you haven't seen it). For whatever reason, it hasn't resonated with audiences since its release like so many other Disney movies of the 1950's and 1960's. The goal? At least partially replicate the success of the Davy Crockett episodes (starring Parker) that swept the country. I've seen this movie twice and like it a lot. If it isn't a classic, so be it. If it exciting stuff, especially when the locomotive chase comes along, and features a pretty cool cast of recognizable faces, if not huge star power.
Aired recently on Turner Classic Movies as part of a Disney-themed night, host Leonard Maltin made an interesting point, something I try and bring up occasionally in reviews. Way back in 1956, there was no such thing as computer-generated images. If you wanted something in your movie, you had to find some way through special and visual effects, matte paintings, tricks of the eyes to get the job done. So what's the coolest thing going here? That chase. THAT CHASE. Filmed in Georgia, 'Locomotive' used real locomotives and had them tearing up and down railroad tracks through the Georgia countryside. Shot in technicolor, director Francis D. Lyon turns in one beautiful-looking movie. The chase is incredibly exciting, edge of your seat stuff as Andrews and his Raiders run for their lives with....
Dogged pursuit unfortunately (for them). The mission actually starts off pretty successfully. What Andrews hadn't counted on was the freakishly stubborn train official, William Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter, just 30 years old), who chases them up the track with everything he has. At just 85 minutes, 'Locomotive' is a pretty quick movie, but it is at its absolute strongest in the 45-minute or so extended chase scene from beginning to end. It becomes a lightning-paced cat and mouse game as Andrews throws everything he can at Fuller while Fuller puts his head down and barrels through the obstacles. I try and avoid saying a movie is a thrill ride, but as far as chase scenes go, this is one of the best. There's too many anxious moments to count, the success or failure of the mission contingent on a second or two here, a minute or two there. The chase, the twists, the Georgia countryside, the matte paintings in the background, it's all can't miss stuff.
If you're a fan of tough guy movies from westerns to war movies to film noirs and with a good dose of Disney thrown in, you'll get a kick out of the cast here. For starters, Davy Crockett himself as Andrews is a welcome lead. A tad wooden at times, Parker is nonetheless a very likable hero, stout, resolute, loyal and willing to risk it all to accomplish his mission. Hunter isn't given much to do other than stubbornly chase after a train, but his presence is always welcome. Their few scenes together -- Parker and Hunter -- are excellent, especially one when Hunter's Fuller approaches Andrews because he believes something is up minutes before the locomotive heist. As for the rest of the cast, look for Kenneth Tobey, John Lupton, Jeff York, Harry Carey Jr., Don Megowan, Slim Pickens, Claude Jarman Jr., and Eddie Firestone. Remember, it's just 85 minutes long so little character development but a lot of familiar, welcome faces.
Not much to fault here. The post-chase fallout drags a bit only because it seems Disney and Co. didn't quite know how to wrap things up. Stick with the history (a rather dark history at that) or fudge the truth a little bit? Disney sticks with the real-life history for an ending that's pretty dark for a Disney movie. Thankfully, it goes down the Davy Crockett route and only hits at what's to happen, never showing it in what would have been graphic detail. And come on, Parker (Crockett), Tobey (Bowie) and Megowan (Travis) are back together again! With York (Mike Fink) too! How can you lose?!? An underrated winner.
The Great Locomotive Chase (1956): ***/****