Civil War era Great Locomotive Chase Movie Review

Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase tells a true Civil War railroad story about the Andrews Raiders, a team of 24 Union spies.

This 87 mile great Civil War railroad story was actually filmed on the 57 mile Tallulah Falls Railway linking Cornelia, Georgia, with Franklin N.C.

The story is about the Andrews Raiders, 24 Union soldiers from Ohio who volunteered for a secret mission to steal a locomotive engine from the Marrieta, Ga and run it north to Chattanooga, TN, destroying rail and bridges along the way in an effort to cut the South’s rail lines during the Civil War. The movie is based on one of the raiders, Corporal William Pittenger’s somewhat embellished narrative of the event. The surviving raiders were also recipients of the first Medal of Honor.

On Saturday, April 12, 1862 at Marietta, Ga around 5:00 AM, James J. Andrews and 19 of his Raiders boarded the train with tickets to various points up the line. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum‘s 4-4-0 William Mason, of the same era, portrayed the Western & Atlantic General that was pulling a regular mixed passenger and freight train out of Atlanta. Posing as a loyal Southern sympathizer, Andrews confides in conductor Fuller that he is on his way to deliver  an “emergency ammunition train” to General Beauregard and his troops at Corinth.

After the crew and passengers de-train for a breakfast stop at the Lacy Hotel at Big Shanty, built by the W&ARR during the mid-1850’s, they commandeer  the train right out from under the normally watchful eyes of Confederate troops that were based within just 50 feet of the railroad track. Their journey north begins  a daredevil attempt to wreck the track and bridges of the Western & Atlantic Railroad behind them in  hopes of bringing an early end to the Civil War for the North. It was a high-stakes operation with a huge payoff. If they succeeded, they would effectively win the war; if they were caught, they were sure to be hanged.

“The Great Locomotive Chase,” was directed by Francis D. Lyon 1956

This 1956 feature shores up the suspense of the scheme masterfully. We watch, transfixed, as the relentless Confederate train conductor, William Fuller (played by the all-business Jeffrey Hunter) roars through a bevy of Southern stations hot on the heels of his hijacked locomotive. His pursuit begins on foot, then on a handcar until he  takes over the Yonah, a 4-2-0 steam logging engine, and then finally running in reverse, the Texas,  portrayed by Paramount Pictures’ Virginia & Truckee 4-4-0 Inyo. For all his efforts, James Andrews (Fess Parker) can’t believe the  desperation of his pursuers . “Won’t anything stop that train?”

This Civil War railroad movie is crammed with stunning vintage train footage, but in reality only 13 railroad cars (including 2 locomotives) were used in the production. In a classic case of Hollywood illusion, the cars were simply given new numbers and markings for different scenes.

History buffs won’t need to keep watching for long, but they’ll want to anyway–the portrayal of the Raiders’ gumption and against-all-odds heroics pushes the basest, most human of audience buttons. It’s not that The Great Locomotive Chase is a simple but well-done film about good vs. evil. Instead, it explores both sides’ motives and draws gentle conclusions about honor, and it does so at an invigoratingly high clip.

In that way, it’s a movie worth sharing with kids 8 and older–there’s no blood and only a sprinkling of violence here, but as with all war stories, tragedy plays a prominent role.
This movie is a dream for railroad buffs–old steam trains still provide a thrill for many people. It is also noteworthy for people interested in the civil war, being based on actual events, although I suspect history scholars might find it too superficial. However, the purpose of this movie is mostly to entertain fans of all ages–not to get bogged down in too much detail, especially on how quickly the Confederate pursuit overcame the destroyed rail line.

If you like to watch trains you must have this. The old locomotives are great including the General. But the best thing is the beautiful railroad and Georgia /North Carolina scenery. Many wooden trestles. Walt Disney liked the railroad so much he tried to buy it. He couldn’t because of the excessive debt the railroad had. The plot and the acting are a little corny but not over done. But hey this is an “Ole Yeller” and Davy Crockett vintage film.

The Great Locomotive Chase’s actual Civil War events also inspired the Buster Keaton 1927 silent comedy The General.

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One Response to Civil War era Great Locomotive Chase Movie Review

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