“The Great Locomotive Chase” is a Disney live-action film about a famous incident in the American Civil War. The Andrew’s Raid was meant to help the Union offensive to capture Chattanooga in 1862. Some of Andrew’s men were the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. The movie stars Fess Parker who had recently reached superstardom in Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series. Disney was hoping the movie would tap into the mania over the TV program. The movie was also made because Walt Disney was a huge train nut. The Disney company was able to find some antique locomotives to stand-in for the museum bound stars of the movie. The General was played by the William Mason which was built in 1856. The director was Francis Lyon (“The Young and the Brave”). Parker’s co-star Jeffrey Hunter was just reaching stardom as “The Searchers” was released three months before “The Great Locomotive Chase”. It may be the first Disney movie with cursing. Several times Rebels say “Damn Yankee”.
“This true life historical adventure is based upon a real incident in the American Civil War”. The survivors of the Andrew’s Raid are receiving the Medal of Honor. One of them, Cpl. William Pittenger (John Upton), takes us to a flashback to the event and narrates. It all started when Gen. Mitchell summons a civilian spy named James Andrews (Parker) to outline a plan to aid his capture of Chattanooga. He wants Andrews to lead a group of volunteers purloin a Confederate train and do so much damage to the line from Atlanta to Chattanooga that Confederate reinforcements will not be able to reach Chattanooga. Andrews is game and he and his men head for Marrietta, Georgia. One of the sixteen is a hothead named Campbell (Jeff York) who has a hard time concealing his antipathy toward Rebels. He is allowed to volunteer for cinematic purposes. At Marrietta, the men dressed as civilians board a Northbound train called The General. At Big Shanty, they steal the train at a breakfast stop. They begin their mission of breaking up track and cutting telegraph lines. They have to conform to the strictly enforced train schedule, but everything seems to be going according to plan. However, they had not factored in one William Fuller (Hunter). Hunter was the General’s conductor and he was not going to give up his locomotive without a fight. He starts chasing the train on foot, then on a hand-car, then on another train. Meanwhile, Andrews is bluffing his way through stations and encounters with southbound trains. The final stage of the chase has Fuller racing backwards in The Texas.
“The Great Locomotive Chase” was the first Disney live-action film that dealt with an historical event. It must have surprised audiences who were used to fantasies (“20,000 Leagues under the Sea” -1954) or childrens’ animation (“Lady and the Tramp” -1955). Not only is it a history lesson, but the vibe was not light. There is no humor and there is not a single cute animal (like the seal in “20,000 Leagues”). On the other hand, no one dies. The acting is fine (especially by Parker and Hunter), but the real stars are the trains. Although the movie is not just aimed at young boys, it definitely catered to them. It’s more of an adult movie than most Disney pics of that era. The chase is exciting and Andrews and Fuller are worthy adversaries. Yanks and Rebs had someone to root for. Importantly, the movie is sympathetic towards both sides. In fact, the movie concludes with a scene that is obviously meant to symbolize reconciliation between the North and South. The music is a plus and fits the script well. It is a mixture of Yankee and Rebel favorites like “Dixie” and “Tenting on the Old Campground”. Surprisingly, the dialogue is not rife with cornpone. The main strength is its amazing fidelity to history. You would not think that is 2017 the best source for learning about the Andrew’s Raid would be a Disney movie. It is certainly better than Buster Keaton’s “The General”. It takes no major liberties with the story, but it didn’t have to. A documentary would be entertaining, this has Davy Crockett and real trains.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is amazingly accurate. Eight of the survivors were awarded the first Medals of Honor. One was Cpl. William Pittenger who went on to write several narratives about the raid. The plan was essentially as outlined. Gen. Mitchell was planning an offensive to capture the key city of Chattanooga. The scheme to hijack a train and wreak havoc on the line leading to the city was Andrews’. Originally there were 24 men involved, but only 22 actually made it onto the train. All of them were soldiers who volunteered, except Andrews and William Campbell. Campbell was a civilian recruited by Andrews. There is no reason to believe he was a jerk as depicted in the movie. The group did rendezvous at Marrietta, Georgia and boarded the train there. They hijacked the General in Big Shanty. Fuller was the conductor and he (and two others) chased after his locomotive on foot, then a handcar, then two different trains. The Raiders managed to stay just ahead of Fuller. They pulled up tracks, cut telegraph lines, and attempted to burn bridges, but rains made the wood wet and they were not successful in flaming the structures. They did manage to destroy some track to force Fuller back on foot. Things turned when Fuller hooked up with the Texas at Adairsville. He had to run the locomotive in reverse, but made good time (he got the locomotive up to 60 MPH) and gained on the General. Although Andrews had done a masterful job of conning railway officials into believing the General was carrying high priority munitions, the military evacuation of Chattanooga created a lot of traffic going south and this slowed his progress considerably. With the Texas in sight, the Raiders tried unhooking two boxcars but the Texas simply pushed them on ahead. I found no evidence that the Raiders were able to set the boxcars on fire or leave a flaming boxcar on a bridge. (Hollywood has to have its fire.) The chase ended when the General ran out of fuel and Andrews ordered the men to separate and try to escape. They did not make a stand and there was no cavalry arriving. However, failure to cut one telegraph line had allowed for alerting the Confederate army in Chattanooga which sent soldiers who ended up capturing all of the Raiders. The chase had lasted over seven hours and the Raiders had covered 87 miles. They were only 17 miles from Chattanooga when they stopped. Eight of the prisoners were executed – Andrews and Campbell for being civilian spies and six chosen randomly. The prison breakout occurred later. Ten of the survivors broke out and eight eventually made it back to the North. Pittenger and five others were exchanged for Confederate prisoner. All of the soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. Andrews and Campbell were excluded because they were civilians.