This movie continues the theme of people trying to go somewhere or get something done and have obstacles in the way. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), like The General (1926) is based on the actual raid during the American Civil War. This version, produced by Disney Studios was told mainly from the Northern perspective and is a drama and not a comedy. It is also the first Disney film to have a curse word.
Fess Parker played the role of a civilian Union spy leader James J. Andrews. Fess Parker was born in Texas in 1924. He joined the US Navy during World War II but his 6 foot 6-inch frame eliminated him from many of the jobs he tried. Just before the end of the war he was transferred to the Marines and sent to the Pacific Theater. Parker used his GI Bill to study history and theater and eventually attended the University of Texas and UCLA.
Beginning is theater after university, he quickly began receiving uncredited roles in films like Harvey (1950), No Room for the Groom (1952), Springfield Rifle (1952), and Island in the Sky (1953). Credited roles began soon such as in Untamed Frontier (1952), The Kid from Left Field (1953), Thunder Over the Plains (1953), and Them! (1954).
His first big break came when Walt Disney was reviewing Them! (1954) looking for someone to play Davy Crockett on the Sunday nights “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” When Walt saw Parker he made the decision to cast the young actor. The series/miniseries debuted in 1955 to overwhelming success. However, the next year the popularity dropped as quickly.
Under contract with Disney, Parker was only cast in their projects which included: The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), Old Yeller (1957), and The Light in the Forest (1958). Because they refused to lend him out for larger roles, Parker eventually left Disney. Over the next few years, he did some oaters and war flicks but hit it big again with the television series “Daniel Boone” 1964-1970.
Following “Daniel Boone” he tried a little more television before leaving films for real estate and commercial wine production. Fess Parker died in 2010.
Jeffrey Hunter played the role of Southern railroad conductor William A. Fuller. Hunter was born in New Orleans in 1926 but was mostly raised in Wisconsin. As a teen, he was active in local theater and radio. He served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war, he studied theater at Northwestern and radio at UCLA. While in graduate school at UCLA he was spotted by a talent scout while he was performing in a school play. He was given a contract with Fox that eventually extended to 1959. He started small but his roles eventually included The Frogmen (1951), Red Skies of Montana (1952), and Sailor of the King (1953).
The studio was also using Hunter as a long out star. As a result, he was able to star in three John Ford directed films. The first on these was opposite John Wayne in the classic western The Searchers (1956). That same year Hunter was in The Great Locomotive Chase (1956). The other two Ford films are The Last Hurrah (1958) starring Spencer Tracy, and the racially sensitive Sergeant Rutledge (1960).
Ford also recommended Hunter for the role of Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961). I think Jeffery Hunter is one of the finest blue-eyed Jesus’ I have ever seen. Because of Hunter’s good looks, this movie was mocked by some and even call I Was a Teenage Jesus.”
Hunter joined the rest of the western world acting in The Longest Day (1962) where he died a gut-wrenching death, in spite of the on and off screen support for the character.
Jack Webb, head of Warner Bros. studio offered Hunter a two-year contract to play circuit-riding Texas lawyer Temple Lea Houston, the youngest son of Sam Houston, in a television series. “Temple Houston” ran 1963–1964. However, the show could never find its footing. Because of the series, Hunter missed appearing in John Ford’s final film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Hunter appeared as Captain Pike in the original “Star Trek” pilot the cage in 1964). In the 1960’s with his star power falling, he began to work in movies overseas. During the filming of one of these, he was injured by a stunt explosion. This and a series of other related events lead to an intracranial hemorrhage while caused his death and the young age of 42.
Slim Pickens, who was discussed in Episode 19 – The Cowboys (1972) played Southern rail engineer Pete Bracken.
Harry Carey Jr. who was discussed in Episode 15 – The Undefeated (1969) played the role of William Bensinger, one of the Union raiders.
Pocked face actor Morgan Woodward played the role of Alex, a Confederate soldier that was leading the leading the singing on the train. Woodward is probably best known as the mirrored-sunglass wearing Boss Godfrey from Cool Hand Luke (1967). The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) was the first of 126 movie and television roles for Woodward.
Kenneth Tobey had a small role as a southern railroad official Anthony Murphy. Tobey had a career that began in 1945 and continued through 1997. His career includes the great The Thing from Another World (1951) and Billy Jack (1971). I will speak more about Tobey in the future.
The Confederate officer that put all the captured spies in a room sure looks like Mark Lenard, AKA Mr. Spock’s father. However, I cannot find any reference to this so I have to assume it is not.
Dick Sergeant had a small role as one of the spies. Sergeant was known as the witch Samantha’s second television husband on “Bewitched” 1964-1972. He came on in 1969 when Dick York was too ill to continue. Dick Sergeant Dick York – Sergeant York.
Again this movie is based on the true Civil War events that I described in Episode 58 – The General (1926). This Walt Disney film is told in flashback by one of the men that survived the raid, William Pittenger (John Lupton). It begins as the survivors are being awarded the first Congressional Medal of Honor. Pittenger thinks back to one of the time he met civilian spy James J. Andrews (Fess Parker). Pittinger volunteers for any mission that Andrews has.
Andrews meets with the commanding Union General about attacking Chattanooga. He knows he can’t hold Chattanooga unless he can stop troops from coming up by rail from Atlanta. Andrews selects a group of volunteers from the Union army with a plan to destroy the southern rails.
They are to travel to the Marietta rail hotel. Their plan is to say they are from Kentucky heading south to join the Confederate Army. Pittinger travels south with “the Giant” Bill Campbell (Jeff York). Campbell was a hot head and always wanted to fight. Because of rain most of the men end at an inn north of the Tennessee River. This is the first Disney movie that had cussing. Although the characters debate whether Damn Yankee is cussing or not. Andrews shows up and he is known to the innkeepers. Andrews tells the group about the great Confederate victory at Shiloh. However, the details are all wrong, with PGT Beauregard being the commander instead of Albert Sydney Johnson and the Union gunboats being sunk. The Confederates did win the first day of the battle and Beauregard did take over.
Many of the men end up on the southbound train with a joyful bunch of Confederate soldiers. The Confederates are being led in song by Alex (Morgan Woodward). Campbell almost blows the whole thing because he is so hot-headed.
Most of the group meets at the Marietta. They buy tickets on the northbound train which is pulled by the engine “The General.” The train conductor, William A. Fuller (Jeffery Hunter) is suspicious of so many men getting on the train at one time. Andrews shows him an official letter from Beauregard and Fuller believes his story. He also says Anthony Murphy (Kenneth Tobey) an official of the railroad is on the train.
The train stops at Big Shanty for a breakfast stop and Andrews’s men uncouple most of the cars and steal the train. As the train pulls out Fuller, Murphy and the engineer pursue on foot. The spies borrow some hand tools from a group of rail workers and further down the track they remove a section of track and cut the telegraph wire. When Fuller gets to the rail workers they borrow a push car which is like a rail car but you push it along with a pole. The railroad men have to jump when the push car hits the missing track. Because the gap is small they carry the push car over it and continue their pursuit. They pass a small locomotive at Etowah. In reality, if they had destroyed this engine they would not have been caught.
The stolen train has to stop at Kingston because there is a southbound freight train heading down the track. They are questioned and Andrews says this is a special ammunition train and that Fuller is coming on the next train. When the freight train comes in it has red flags which mean there is at least one more train behind them because of the Union attack.
Fuller and group reach Etowah and take the Yonah engine and some Confederate soldiers. The situation at Kingston continues to get tense but the second freight comes in and the spies continue north. The Yonah comes into the station and is face to face with the freight train. Fuller and his group jump on a train and head off in pursuit. It is not too long before they arrive at another section of track that had been destroyed by the Union spies. Again on foot, they run forward until they meet the regularly scheduled southbound freight. The train is being pulled by the engine named Texas and driven by Pete Bracken (Slim Pickens). They continue the pursuit with the new train in reverse. At Adairsville, they dump the boxcars, pickup help, and continue in reverse. At Calhoun, they pick up the Dalton telegraph operator. Fuller orders Bracken to keep blowing the whistle so the Union spies will know that they don’t have time to tear up the track.
Andrews has the men knock holes in the box cars and they throw railroad ties on the tracks. Fuller runs ahead and clears the ties but he is nowhere near as cool as Johnny Gray in The General (1926).
The stolen train sends one of the boxcars rolling down the grade towards The Texas. Bracken reverses his train, which actually makes it go in the right direct. They are able to capture the runaway box car and drop it off on a side track. The stolen train passes Dalton but stops for water north of town. They tear down the telegraph down but the Dalton operator gets a message out. The Confederates send word to send out cavalry at Ringgold. The Union spies leave another box car at the water station and set a trap on the rail. However, all it does is knock the boxcar they left behind off the front of the Confederate train. In an homage to Fuller, Andrews says “will nothing stop that train.”
The Union spies want to fight at the tunnel at Ringgold but Andrews presses on as do the Confederates. The Union spy train is running low on wood as they arrive at the first covered trestle bridge. They set their last boxcar on fire and leave it on the bridge with the brakes locked. Fuller runs past the flames and uses an iron bar to unlock the box car. They push the burning car out and save the bridge. Fuller says the bridge is alright and has better results than the Union General that said the bridge was safe in The General (1926).
When the stolen train runs low on wood, Andrews and company line up for an old fashion fight. Confederate cavalry comes down the track from the north and the spies scatter. Many people have criticized this movie saying it goes downhill after they scatter and it ends badly for most of the raiders. I for one am happy that they stayed accurate to history and didn’t make a false ending.
Most of the spies are captured and their cover story sinks them all. On the train to Atlanta, Andrews tries to apologize to Fuller. At the prison, the spies are told that they have been convicted and will be hung. They manage to get out of there cuffs and capture Mr. Turner (Hank Paterson). They rush the guards and many escapes over the wall. Andrews and Campbell Mae a stand so the others can get away. Some are caught right away but eight made it back north. A preacher comes to get Fuller to see Andrews. Andrews apologizes with a plea for reconciliation after the war.
The movie ends with a closeup of Pittenger’s Medal of Honor.
World-Famous Short Summary – Train moves through Indian territory
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Beware the moors