There are a lot of fun Disney movies from the 1950s and '60s that have fallen through the cracks for fans. That can even include a few starring some popular Disney actors. Among them is a 1956 film that ranks as a fun adventure and works well as it tells an amazing true Civil War story.
The Great Locomotive Chase
The story itself is well known among Civil War buffs but might be ignored by others. In a Wonderful World of Disney special, Walt Disney explained the tale called out to him as he'd grown up on stories of the Civil War as a child. It also involved trains, which was always one of Walt's passions. He even considered making this before 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but went with the latter first. The huge box office success of that gave Disney a chance to make this picture that he likely always held close to his heart.
The history of the Andrews Raid
The Andrews Raid is one of those tales that prove real life is stranger than fiction. In April of 1862, as the Civil War raged on, James J. Andrews, a Union spy, proposed a daring idea to General Ormsby Mitchell. Mitchell wanted to attack Chattanooga but was worried that the Confederates would use the railways to send reinforcements and push him out. Andrews' assignment was to steal a train and use it to burn a dozen bridges, thus ensuring the Confederate response and their supply lines were crippled.
Recruiting some volunteer soldiers, Andrews led them into the heart of enemy territory to Marietta, Georgia. A rainstorm forced them to put the raid off for a day, which would turn out to be a big factor. There, they took advantage of the General locomotive being at rest during a stop to steal it and race on their mission to destroy the bridges.
It was an audacious plan but also one quite workable. Had it succeeded, the entire course of the Civil War and American history would have been changed. However, like so many great plans, there was one thing Andrews and the Union brass could never have counted on: William A. Fuller.
A veteran of the railways since he was a teenager, Fuller was an ace conductor considered so knowledgeable about trains that the Confederacy refused to let him enlist in the army, feeling he was more important handling the railways. The great irony is that had the raid taken place the day before as planned, Andrews and his men wouldn't have had to deal with Fuller at all. A proud Georgia native, when Fuller saw his train take off, he thought Confederate deserters were stealing it. That so outraged him that he took off running after it.
Fuller's single-minded pursuit threw the entire plan off as he used a rail cart with some aides to chase the General. By the time he got an old locomotive on his side, Fuller realized he was dealing with Union spies and just increased his hunt. He was a step behind them at Kingston and Fuller commandeered a faster train to chase them with a pack of soldiers joining in. A complication was Mitchell ended up taking Huntsville ahead of schedule, throwing off the Confederate trains and slowing Andrews' party down.
Andrews and his men paused long enough to tear up some tracks behind them to keep Fuller from following them. That looked to be the end of it, but fate was smiling on Fuller as the Texas, one of the fastest locomotives around, was coming from another track. Ridding it of excess cars, Fuller ran the Texas backward to go after Andrews and his men.
Andrews' team had cut telegraph wires, but Fuller kept coming after them. They tried to push some cars in his way and even set one afire atop a bridge, but Fuller just pushed the Texas on, setting speed records to take care of it and prevent even one bridge from beind destroyed. Having lost almost all their wood fuel, Andrews and his men were ready to fight, only for Confederate reinforcements to arrive.
The raiders scattered but were eventually rounded up as Mitchell had to call off his planned attack. In one more crazy twist to an already crazy story, eight members of the party managed to escape jail. Andrews and the rest were convicted of spying and hanged, while the surviving raiders were the first-ever recipients of the newly established Medal of Honor.
The fun making of the film
The story was perfect for a movie and Disney went all out for it. For the role of Andrews, he chose Fess Parker, by now a household name thanks to his starring role as Davy Crockett. John Lupton played William Pittinger, Andrews' key aide and one of the surviving raiders. Jeff York, who played opposite Parker in Davy Crockett, was William Campbell, a soldier, and popular actor Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) played Fuller. Also, there are small roles by veteran Western star Slim Pickens and Dick Sargent of Bewitched fame.
The TV special showed the fun production, which couldn't use the original railways as they were now too modern. Instead, they picked the unused Tallulah Falls Railway. Both the Texas and General were in museums, and no way to make them useable, so Disney got some lookalike locomotives to stand in for them. Walt himself dropped by the set to give the locomotives a spin.
Director Francis D. Lyon had help from Wilbur Kurtz, a noted Civil War historian who had worked on Gone With the Wind, among other movies. Kurtz had even talked to some of the Andrews raiders to get their stories and was able to aid the production well to make it look legitimate.
A fun touch of the production was using the citizens of Clayton, Georgia, as cast members, including W. S. Bearden, the former mayor of Clayton, as a crusty switchman who's suspicious of Andrews. While filming the chase scenes was daunting, it worked well.
Why the movie is worth watching
The film takes a bit to get going, with the early scenes showing stuff like Andrews feeling a bit guilty over being a spy and lying to the good folks he meets in Georgia. However, once the actual raid begins, the film kicks into high gear and doesn't let up.
What's notable is that it doesn't take sides. You can root for Andrews and his mission yet also be impressed by Fuller pursuing them and cheering for him to catch up to Andrews. It's impressive seeing the tension rise with Fuller just a step ahead and Andrews and his squad not believing this guy keeps coming after all they (literally) throw at him. "Can't anything stop this train?" Andrews complains, and it seems nothing can.
The movie does seem to lose steam (pun intended) once the trains stop and the prison escape is not that fun. Yet there is a good final meeting between Fuller and Andrews, each respecting the other for their skill and drive.
The movie wasn't the hit expected and is only available now on DVD. However, both Walt and Parker long cited it as a personal favorite project of both. It's worth a look for how it brings such an incredible true story to life as both Civil War and train lovers can enjoy it. It's also worth tracking down the "Making of" special on YouTube to see the production and as much fun making it as it is to watch.
At the end of the day, The Great Locomotive Chase is one of those underrated Disney gems of its time with a good cast, a stellar story and deserves a watch to do justice to such a wild true-life Civil War adventure.