|Great Locomotive Chase, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 25 April 2000|
The first Medals of Honor, granted by Congress, were given on March 25, 1863 to the six military survivors of what became known as "Andrews' Raid." 'The Great Locomotive Chase' is a handsomely-produced, essentially authentic retelling of that Civil War adventure. Embellishments have been kept to a minimum so that this is, overall, one of the most historically accurate movies ever made in Hollywood. It's a satisfying, engrossing movie; it's not a classic, but it's a solid example of craftsmanship. This DVD has almost no extras, but does the film in both the letterboxed and pan-and-scanned versions. Since it was very ably filmed by Charles Boyle in CinemaScope, the letterboxed version is definitely to be preferred.
Walt Disney was very interested in the story of Andrews' Raiders; legend has it that he literally tossed a coin to choose between this and '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' as his first big-scale, Hollywood style live-action film. (He'd done decent little swashbucklers in England.) 'Leagues' won, so 'Chase' was filmed several years later.
Disney's choices of directors were often curious. Richard Fleischer, the son of Disney's main rival, had made a reputation as a director of lean, intense films noir -- so he was hired to direct the lavish period piece, '20,000 Leagues.' Francis (D.) Lyon had made two sports biographies ('Crazylegs' and 'The Bob Mathias Story') and one second-feature horror movie ('Cult of the Cobra'), so what possessed Disney to hire him to direct this Civil War adventure? (Lyon promptly went back to B movies for the rest of his career; this is his only A-list movie.) Perhaps he seemed malleable to the controlling Disney, someone who'd do what he's told and not try to be creative. The movie certain has that aura; it's stolid and unimaginative, though crisply and clearly told.
Fess Parker plays James J. Andrews, leader of the raid; he was a Secret Service agent who, according to Lawrence Edward Watkins' script, wanted to join the Union Army in 1862. "After just so long," he explains, "a man has to come out into the open." But his new mission was also undercover. He selected a group of volunteers, almost all in the Army, for his mission of infiltrating the South. The plan was to steal a locomotive on the Alexandra-Memphis line, then head north, destroying the railroad bridges behind them. Ultimately, the mission failed, partly through the plucky determination of Southern loyalist William A. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter), a conductor on the rail line who pursued Andrews' stolen locomotive in another (that ran backwards up the line) -- the Great Locomotive Chase itself.
The movie is terse -- 87 minutes -- and to the point. No romance has been added, and the story stays tightly focussed on the tale of Andrews and his men. Even Fuller's exploits, and Hunter is practically a working definition of "intrepid" here, are shown only insofar as they relate to Andrews and his men. The story continues on after the Chase, when Andrews and his men were captured; some managed to escape from prison, some were released in a prisoner exchange, and some of them -- including Andrews -- were executed by the Confederates.
The movie assiduously avoids any question of slavery; the word isn't even mentioned. At one point, over a campfire, Andrews says "I believe in a Federal Union" -- but that's the most political comment anyone makes. For many years after the Civil War, in deference to Southern attitudes, there was a kind of pretense among movie makers, novelists, even historians, that the main cause of the Civil War wasn't slavery, but some kind of economic conflict between North and South. It was slavery. The only black people seen in 'The Great Locomotive Chase' are happy and cheerful. But don't blame Disney and his filmmakers; this was a standard attitude at the time.
Enjoy, instead, the film for what it is, a handsomely-produced Civil War adventure, realistically presented, filmed mostly outdoors on well-chosen locations. (The interior sets are, unfortunately, particularly phony.) The dialog is somewhat stilted and mannered, but no worse than other films from this period. The acting is generally good, with Parker especially effective in an understated performance. Hunter is much more dynamic and lively, but also more clearly acting. They make a very good contrast, and the two scenes they have together are especially effective. The supporting cast includes character actor favorites like Kenneth Tobey, Harry Carey, Jr. and Slim Pickens. The movie is enhanced by small, telling details: Pickens fries bacon on the door of his engine's firebox, for example. It's clearly been researched to the hilt, and looks authentic throughout.
This isn't the first movie version of the Great Locomotive Chase. In 1927, Buster Keaton went to Cottage Grove, Oregon, to film 'The General,' a comic version of the same story. He has, more or less, Jeffrey Hunter's role, though he's an engineer, not a conductor, and while the first half of the movie is authentic, it veers away into another kind of story halfway through. But 'The General' is a masterpiece, a classic. 'The Great Locomotive Chase' is a solid, craftsman like version of the same tale, not a corrective.
This is another of the many Disney films released by Anchor Bay Entertainment, which seems to specialize in films that have fallen through the cracks. If you're a train buff, it's a must purchase; if not, it's a good rental for a weekend viewing.
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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, THE GENERAL (1927)