The Great Locomotive Chase
Cast & Crew
In 1862, Union Army corporal William Pittenger is summoned to Washington, D.C. by War Department Secretary Edwin Stanton, who awards William and his men the first Congressional Medals of Honor ever conferred, for conspicuous bravery. Although William accepts with pride, he feels unworthy of the honor, recalling his fallen comrades and leader, James J. Andrews: William's company has been ordered by Maj. Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel to guard Nashville, but they are frustrated that they are not allowed to engage in active fighting in Chattanooga. When James visits Mitchel, William greets him respectfully, knowing that he is a civilian spy for the Union who poses as a Confederate sympathizer. Mitchel explains to James that Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, who are stationed in Virginia and Tennessee, respectively, are connected by one vulnerable stretch of railroad. James and Mitchel form a plan to sabotage the tracks and bridges along the railroad, thus allowing Mitchel to proceed south unimpeded. Although James had hoped to quit the secret service and join the Army, Mitchel convinces him that this mission could shorten the war significantly, and needs an experienced leader. James contacts William, who gathers a group of about twenty men for a secret meeting. There, James explains the first steps of the mission: Posing as Confederate soldiers, they must travel by twos and threes on a dangerous trip over mountains and rivers and meet behind enemy lines, in Marietta, Georgia. Although James gives the men a chance to back out, no one does. William partners with hotheaded William Campbell, who hates having to pose as a conspirator against the Union. When they find the river impassable, they must stay the night at a nearby inn, where each of their compatriots eventually joins them. James arrives later and, known to the inn owners as a Confederate, leads a chorus of "Dixie," which Campbell almost refuses to sing. In their room that night, Campbell apologizes, and William laments the necessity of pretending to support slavery. James agrees, but reminds him that their goal, of curtailing the war's bloodshed, is the most important consideration. The next day, they board a train, where Campbell's anger at the passengers' Confederate songs, coupled with Robert Buffum's Boston accent, almost gives them away, but James's quick thinking saves them. In Marietta, they go over the next part of the plan, to hijack the first three cars of the Western & Atlantic railroad train, then take off and destroy the tracks, telegraph wires and bridges all the way into Virginia. Although Campbell wants to fight the Rebels directly, James warns the men that they will accomplish the most by finishing their mission without killing. When they board the W & A, Campbell at first refuses to join them, but jumps on at the last possible moment. Quick-witted conductor William A. Fuller, who suspects the motley group may be deserters, questions James, who reluctantly "admits" that they are carrying out secret orders from Beauregard. Mollified, Fuller leaves the group alone at a breakfast stop, and they are able to unhook the first cars and flee, stranding the Confederates. They travel north, and under the guise of Beauregard's "special forces," are able to borrow tools and receive special treatment at each of the stations. The men exult, not realizing that Fuller has run to the next station, where he has sent a message about the raid to the Confederate forces and borrowed a handcar to pursue them personally. At the next station, the tense men are forced to wait for a southbound train to clear the tracks. Just as Campbell is inciting some of the men to question James's leadership and the stationmaster is offering to contact Beauregard himself for special help, the southbound train leaves, and they are able to move on without incident. Fuller arrives soon after, and although he tries to send a message to the next station, James has already cut the wire. Fuller then commandeers a freight train to chase the Unionists, picking up men along the way to help him. Upon realizing that they are being pursued, James orders the last train to be uncoupled, forcing Fuller to slow down to remove the car from his path. James overrules Campbell's insistance on attacking the freight train, while at the same time managing to slow Fuller's process. The conductor, however, remains unflagging in his pursuit, and soon James's train is running out of wood fuel. They reach a bridge, where they light the last train car on fire and move on, not realizing that Fuller has managed to push the burning car out of harm's way. When James sees Fuller behind them once again, he announces that it is time to fight, but they soon hear cavalry troops approaching, and instead James orders them to run. Within weeks, all are captured, imprisoned and eventually sent to Atlanta to be court-martialed. There, they manage to unlock their shackles, and plan a breakout. James wants to sneak out but defers to William's plan to fight like soldiers, hand-to-musket against the guards. The men consider James an inferior fighter, but just as the fight seems lost, the civilian sacrifices himself to hold off the guards, allowing some men to escape. Campbell joins James, but both are overtaken and captured, as are many of the fleeing Unionists. Weeks later, before their scheduled hanging, James tells Campbell that they must now show the Confederates that they know how to die like men. Although Fuller at first refuses James's invitation to see him, he finally visits, and reluctantly agrees to shake hands, as a symbol of the divided nation that will soon have to reunite. Back in Stanton's office, William recalls James with pride and admiration, glad that he will be remembered throughout time as a hero.
Claude Jarman Jr.
Harry Carey Jr.
W. S. Bearden
Robert O. Cook
Daniel Decatur Emmett
Wilbur G. Kurtz
Lawrence Edward Watkin
Lawrence Edward Watkin
Lawrence Edward Watkin
The Great Locomotive Chase -
However, Andrews hadn't counted on the determination of the General's conductor, William Fuller, to get his train back. When Fuller saw that the General had been seized, he took chase -- by foot, by handcar, and eventually by another locomotive. The General was slowed down by the fact that the track was a single line for north- and southbound trains, and it had to keep making station stops in order to keep to the schedule and not arouse suspicions. Andrews had prepared for this with a series of bluffs to station masters.
Eventually, Fuller had to abandon his locomotive, run through destroyed track, and commandeer another train, and then another, until finally he was chasing the General in a locomotive called the Texas, running in reverse. Andrews' train ran out of fuel some 18 miles south of Chattanooga, and his men scattered into the fields. All were captured in the days ahead. Several, including Andrews, were executed by hanging; others were imprisoned. Of those, some escaped, and others were returned to the north through prisoner exchanges. Most of the Andrews Raiders, as they were known, ultimately received the first-ever Congressional Medals of Honor for their actions. (Andrews himself did not, because he was a civilian and thus ineligible.)
The Andrews Raid had loosely inspired Buster Keaton's classic film The General (1926), but now, thirty years later, Walt Disney wished to make a dramatic film out of the tale. The result is still considered one of his better live-action pictures.
Disney assigned the project to screenwriter Lawrence Watkin (Treasure Island ) and also made Watkin producer, even though Watkin had zero experience as such. To direct, Disney hired Francis D. Lyon, a former film editor who had transitioned to directing a few years earlier. Despite their limited combined experience, Lyon later said that Disney "did not interfere in any way during the shooting," adding that Disney had his hands full with the then-ongoing construction of Disneyland. Actor Fess Parker, however, said that Disney "wanted the last word... he didn't want anybody to challenge him," and so made sure not to employ a strong, assertive producer or director to the film.
Parker, at this point in the middle of a star-making run as Davey Crockett in a series of Disney TV shows and movies, was cast as Andrews. Fuller, the southern train conductor, was played by Jeffrey Hunter, who had just completed an important turn in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), which would be released three months before The Great Locomotive Chase. Another John Ford regular, Harry Carey, Jr., was cast in a supporting role here. Carey later recounted, "I was nothing but a glorified extra, just standing on that train. I went out of my mind!" He added that he and his fellow castmates (except Parker) passed the time by drinking, which proved a challenge since their shooting location -- Georgia -- was a dry state. Jeffrey Hunter would drive across the state line to buy their liquor and bring it back, Carey said.
Fess Parker was unhappy with Walt Disney around this time because he felt Disney was not giving him enough opportunities to stretch his acting wings in other, more grown-up movies. While traveling to the Georgia location with Disney and Jeffrey Hunter, for instance, conversation turned to Hunter's just-completed job on The Searchers -- and Disney casually mentioned that Warner Brothers had inquired about Parker for that very Searchers role. Disney had turned them away without even consulting Parker. Soon thereafter, Parker told Disney he wanted to play the lead role in Bus Stop (1956), but Disney wouldn't loan him out for that one, either. Either film could conceivably have marked a major turning point in Parker's career and screen persona.
So it was likely with some personal consternation toward Disney that Parker later called this film "dull," and said "there was more tender loving care of the locomotives than of their live asset." It's true that Disney, a major train enthusiast, spared little expense on historical accuracy on this movie, starting with the trains themselves. The actual General and Texas locomotives were in museums and it was prohibitively complicated to re-activate them to a fully operational state, so Disney found two other period engines. One, the William Mason, was brought in from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad line to play the General, and another, the Inyo, was rented from Paramount studios to play the Texas. Both were almost exactly identical to the real engines. They had interesting histories themselves: the William Mason had transported Union troops around Harpers Ferry and had previously been used on screen in Wells Fargo (1937) and Stand Up and Fight (1939). The Inyo, built in 1875, had appeared in Dodge City (1939), The Harvey Girls (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946), and So Dear to My Heart (1948), among other films. Both locomotives currently reside in railroad museums and are still driven on special occasions.
The actual Georgia rail line on which the Andrews Raid occurred was by 1955 too modernized to be usable for a period film, but Disney found another line in Georgia, the Tallulah Falls Railway, about fifty miles away. It still existed in the crude standard of 1860s railroad construction and was thus perfect. Much of the movie filmed in and around the town of Clayton, Georgia, and a number of Clayton townspeople were hired for bit parts, including the mayor, the chief of police and a local Baptist minister.
The film was well-received by moviegoers, and critics praised it as a rousing adventure story and de facto history lesson. "Jeffrey Hunter is positively staggering as the valiant Confederate conductor who leads the chase," declared The New York Times. "Francis D. Lyon...has enacted a peach of a locomotive chase in which the old engines rattle across the country and the actors have a heck of a good time... Great entertainment for youngsters and for anybody who ever had a yen for trains."
By Jeremy Arnold
Michael Barrier, interview with Fess Parker in Walt's People: Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him (Vol. 5), edited by Didier Ghez
Rosemary Entringer, "The Great Locomotive Chase," article in May 1956 issue of Trains magazine
Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films
Charles Tranberg, Walt Disney and Recollections of the Disney Studios: 1955-1980
The Great Locomotive Chase -
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
Born in Oakland, California on March 23, 1917, Tobey originally intended to be a lawyer before a stint with the University of California Little Theater changed his mind. From there, he went straight to New York and spent nearly two years studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall. Throughout the '40s, Tobey acted on Broadway and in stock before relocating to Hollywood. Once there, Tobey soon found himself playing a tough soldier in films like I Was a Male War Bride and Twelve O' Clock High (both 1949); or a tough police officer in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Three Secrets (both 1950). Such roles were hardly surprising, given Tobey's craggy features, unsmiling countenance and rough voice.
Needless to say, no-nonsense, authority figures would be Tobey's calling for the remainder of his career; yet given the right role, he had the talent to make it memorable: the smart, likeable Captain Hendrey in The Thing From Another World (1951); the gallant Colonel Jack Evans in the "prehistoric dinosaur attacks an urban center" genre chiller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, a must-see film for fans of special effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen; and as Bat Masterson, holding his own against Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).
Television would also offer Tobey much work: he had his own action series as chopper pilot Chuck Martin in Whirlybirds (1957-59); and had a recurring role as Assistant District Attorney Alvin in Perry Mason (1957-66). He would also be kept busy with guest appearances in countless westerns (Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian) and cop shows (The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, Ironside) for the next two decades. Most amusingly, the tail end of Tobey's career saw some self-deprecating cameo spots in such contemporary shockers as The Howling (1981); Strange Invaders (1983) and his role reprisal of Captain Hendry in The Attack of the B-Movie Monsters (2002). Tobey is survived by a daughter, two stepchildren, and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
Because I've never met a man from Kentucky who was so obviously from Massachusetts.- James J. Andrews
What do we tell the Johnny Rebs when they ask who we are and where we're from?- William Campbell
Tell them you're Kentuckians escaping the rule of the Yankees to join a Southern Regiment. If they press you closely, tell 'em you hail from Fleming County, Kentucky. I'm from Flemingsburg myself. No man from that county has ever joined the Southern army. .... As for you, Mr. Buffum, it might be wiser if you didn't spealk at all. I never met a Kentuckian so plainly from Massachusetts.- James J. Andrews
Lawrence Edward Watkin's credit reads: "Written and produced by." The film begins with the following written foreword: "This true-life historical adventure is based upon a real incident in the American Civil War. Names and places have not been changed." As shown in the film, in April 1862 civilian Union spy James J. Andrews led a raid on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, as a strategic move to impair the Confederate defense and allow Maj. Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel to attack Chattanooga, TN. Although the raid made some progress in disabling the rail line, it ultimately failed, after which eight of the men, including Andrews, were hanged as spies. The men who survived, including William Pittenger, who wrote the book on which The Great Locomotive Chase was based, received the first Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest award for valor that can be bestowed upon a United States serviceman. Although the film suggests that Pittenger and some of the other soldiers escaped the Confederate forces, in reality the court was adjourned before they could be tried, due to fighting in the Atlanta area.
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, The Great Locomotive Chase was filmed on location in Clayton, GA, where director Francis Lyon hired people to play small parts requiring the local dialect. A January 26, 1956 Daily Variety article set the film's budget at $2,500,00 and noted that Lyon took pains to establish good relations with the Clayton locals, encouraging the stars to visit town hospitals and collecting funds for a local cancer victim. An October 1953 New York Times article stated that background footage was shot in Virginia and West Virginia, and a modern source names the Tallulah Falls Railway as the railroad shown in the film. The New York Times item added that William Walsh would possibly write the script, but the extent of his contribution to the released film has not be determined. The New York Times review points out that the trains used in the film were authentic reproductions of 1862 railroad cars, borrowed from Paramount and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. September and October 1955 Hollywood Reporter news items add Mitchell Kowal, George Ross and Paul Jones, a Georgia drama critic making his feature film debut, to the cast. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
As noted in reviews and biographical sources, Walt Disney was a noted "train buff" who maintained a small-scale railroad in his large backyard. In 1955, Walt Disney Productions published a comic book based on the film, entitled Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase. According to a September 15, 1955 Hollywood Reporter item, Random House planned to republish Pittenger's novel to coincide with the film's opening. As noted in contemporary sources, Buster Keaton's 1927 film, The General, was also based on the Andrews Raid (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30).