The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)

87 mins | Adventure, Drama | 20 June 1956

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HISTORY

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 Apr 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 HR 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 26 Jan 1956 DV 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 Oct 1953 NYT article stated that background footage was shot in Virginia and West Virginia, ... More Less

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 Apr 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 HR 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 26 Jan 1956 DV 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 Oct 1953 NYT 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 NYT 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 NYT 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. Sep and Oct 1955 HR 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 15 Sep 1955 HR 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 ). More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Jun 56
pp. 354-55, 370, 372.
Box Office
26 May 1956.
---
Daily Variety
26 Jan 1956.
---
Daily Variety
23 May 56
p. 3.
Film Daily
31 May 56
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Sep 1955
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Sep 1955
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
16 Sep 1955
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Sep 1955
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Sep 1955
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
7 Oct 1955
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Oct 1955
p. 5.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Dec 1955
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Mar 1956
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
23 May 56
p. 3.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
2 Jun 56
p. 922.
New York Times
11 Oct 1953.
---
New York Times
27 Jun 56
p. 35.
New Yorker
7 Jul 1956.
---
Newsweek
23 Mar 1959
p. 32.
Saturday Review
30 Jun 1956.
---
Variety
23 May 56
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec processes
Matte artist
MAKEUP
Makeup and hairdressing
Makeup and hairdressing
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Unit mgr
Prod research
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure by William Pittenger (Philadelphia, 1863).
SONGS
"Sons of Old Aunt Dinah," lyrics by Lawrence Edward Watkin, music by Stan Jones and Paul Smith
"Railroadin' Man," words and music by Stan Jones
"Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," music and lyrics by Walter Kittredge and Paul Smith
+
SONGS
"Sons of Old Aunt Dinah," lyrics by Lawrence Edward Watkin, music by Stan Jones and Paul Smith
"Railroadin' Man," words and music by Stan Jones
"Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," music and lyrics by Walter Kittredge and Paul Smith
"Dixie," words and music attributed to Daniel Decatur Emmett
"Roll, Jordan, Roll," traditional.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
20 June 1956
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 26 January 1956
Atlanta, GA opening: 8 June 1956
Production Date:
late September--early December 1955
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
17 April 1956
Copyright Number:
LP8886
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound Recording
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
CinemaScope
Duration(in mins):
87
Length(in reels):
9
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
17918
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

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 ... +


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. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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