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The Great Locomotive Chase: Disney DVD Review

The Great Locomotive Chase movie poster The Great Locomotive Chase

Theatrical Release: June 8, 1956 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Francis D. Lyon

Cast: Fess Parker (James J. Andrews), Jeffrey Hunter (William A. Fuller), Jeff York (William Campbell), John Lupton (William Pittenger), Eddie Firestone (Robert Buffum), Kenneth Tobey (Anthony Murphy), Don Megowan (Marion A. Ross), Claude Jarman, Jr. (Jacob Parrott), Harry Carey, Jr. (William Besinger), Lennie Geer (J.A. Wilson), George Robotham (William Knight), Stan Jones (Wilson Brown), Marc Hamilton (John Wollam), John Wiley (John M. Scott) Slim Pickens (Pete Bracken)

Review by MichaeLeah

In the early 1950s, Walt Disney contemplated making two live-action films: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Great Locomotive Chase . He had storyboards made for both and presented each project to visiting theatre executives. They preferred 20,000 Leagues and so he opted to make that film first. Walt Disney never forgot about his idea for The Great Locomotive Chase and it wasn’t long before he was determined to make it. The picture held a special place in Disney’s heart because he loved trains. He had a miniature train in his garden at his house and he was even seen occasionally riding a train around his studios on his weekly television series "Disneyland".

The story of The Great Locomotive Chase had actually been put on film before as Buster Keaton’s greatest film: The General (1927). (Keaton was a contemporary and competitor with the currently better-known silent star Charlie Chaplin.) Disney’s take of this story differed in many ways from that earlier film. Keaton’s classic version was a comedy; Disney made his movie a drama/adventure film. The former film was from the perspective of the South; the latter film from the perspective of the North. The former film lacked any sense of historical accuracy while the latter closely followed the original event. The former film was made in California but Disney’s crew went to Georgia for their principal shooting.

James J. Andrews (Fess Parker) was a Yankee spy who posed as a blockade-runner for the South. He learned that if a particular train line was destroyed, it would break the back of the Confederacy because they would no longer be able to ship military supplies east and west. Andrews put together a group of spies (from among the Yankee soldiers) who planned to steal a Rebel
locomotive: The General. Their goal was to destroy the railway behind them. They would pull up pieces of track, cut the telegraph wires, and most importantly burn key Southern bridges to disable the supply line for the Confederate Army. This film essentially chronicles the theft of the train and the thrilling chase that followed. It is impossible to give away much more of the plot (which does thicken) without spoiling the film.

The Great Locomotive Chase is based on a true story from the Civil War. The Disney version of the train chase itself is essentially a simplification of what historically occurred. The sequences that follow the chase are even less accurate; however, this is primary because the events are too complicated to squeeze into a movie. It is true that most of the Raiders were given the Medal of Honor (usually incorrectly called the Congressional Medal of Honor). In fact, some of the participants were the first to receive this award. “The General” (the stolen locomotive) currently sits in a museum in Kennesaw, Georgia where the people are still quite proud of their engine. (The Georgians in this area are also quite proud of the fact this is the place General Sherman suffered his worst defeat during his “March to the Sea.”)

Because there were about 20 individuals involved in stealing the train, it is obvious that there would be difficulty in creating a screenplay both strong and accurate for the film. Many of the characters are “just there” but several are developed and interesting. William Pettenger (John Lupton) serves as both a narrator and a character in this story. His character did write a book called The Great Locomotive Chase along with several other books about the same event. (He authored books on many other subjects as well.) William Campbell (Jeff York) is a character that can easily get on one’s nerves. Historically, he wasn’t really ever a soldier and it is especially doubtful he was such a hothead. The problem doesn’t seem to lie in the actor (he was a great actor: compare his part in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates to his part in Johnny Tremain). Evidently, the screenwriter was trying to use him to intensify the story but it comes off very awkward. Fortunately, Campbell redeems himself at the end of the story. William A. Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter), the man who chased the Yankee spies, was perhaps the most interesting and historically accurate character. His courage and endurance are both exciting and admirable. Finally, James J. Andrews (Fess Parker) was a character that didn’t provide much opportunity for Parker to expand his acting abilities. Still, he is interesting to watch and does a good job of playing this role.

The Great Locomotive Chase was well received but it didn’t do well enough at the box office to warrant a reissue. It was later aired in two parts in May of 1961 on "Disneyland" under the title Andrews’ Raiders.

Warning: Unlike most Disney films, this picture does disappointingly contain two or three uses of an expletive. There are a few times when various Southerners use the expression “D*** Yankee.” Use your discernment when watching this film-particularly with younger viewers who might repeat what they hear.

Buy The Great Locomotive Chase on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

2.25:1 Non-anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Mono 2.0 (English, French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 4, 2004
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase


This movie is brought to us in its original 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio. (It actually measures at 2.25:1) The width of this ratio was advantageous when filming the long trains. This film is not enhanced for 16x9 televisions. There are several shots in this film that look really nice, but for the most part this film is plagued by dirt. The colors are dull and faded and the picture is in desperate need of some serious restoration.

The sound (Dolby Mono) fares better than the picture. All the dialogue is quite clear although perhaps the soundtrack could use some fine-tuning.


It sure would have been nice to have some extras on this DVD. A documentary on the historical locomotive chase would be interesting, as would a comparison between the actual history and the film, particularly since this film was made in a different way than other Disney films. There are no extras on this DVD whatsoever unless you count the preview that was filled with clips from various live action films.


The Great Locomotive Chase is really an excellent film and one of those rare Disney works liked by both the critics and the public. Any weaknesses in the characterizations are compensated by the exhilarating story. Those who enjoy movies like Treasure Island and the Davy Crockett adventures should consider investing in this fine film. The picture quality is disappointing but it is unlikely we will see an improved version anytime soon. Most importantly, Disney released this film in its original CinemaScope ratio. The pan-and-scan process would have caused great damage to such a wide film. Overall, this is an excellent film and it deserves to be seen by everyone.

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Related Reviews:
Also Starring Fess Parker:
Walt Disney Treasures: Davy Crockett | Davy Crockett: Two Movie Set | Old Yeller
Other '50s Disney Films:
Third Man on the Mountain | Darby O'Gill and the Little People | Treasure Island | The Shaggy Dog

Reviewed January 14, 2005.