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  Great Locomotive Chase, The The Runaway Train
Year: 1956
Director: Francis D. Lyon
Stars: Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff York, John Lupton, Eddie Firestone, Kenneth Tobey, Don Megowan, Claude Jarman, Jr, Harry Carey Jr, Leonard P. Geer, George Robotham, Stan Jones, Marc Hamilton, John Wiley, Slim Pickens, Morgan Woodward
Genre: Western, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: The American Civil War brought up many tales of bravery, and one participant who lived to tell one of those tales is William Pettinger (John Lupton) who took part in a daring attempt by the Unionists to destroy the Confederates' railway bridges and thus curtail the conflict, even bring it to a close. He was awarded a medal for his acts, but others were not so lucky to get away, so he wrote his experiences down in a book, despite, as he says, not being a confident author. Nevertheless, the book was a bestseller, and here is the story it relates, where the Union officer and spy James J. Andrews (Fess Parker) boldly headed a team of undercover soldiers into enemy territory...

The Great Locomotive Chase was based on a real event in the Civil War, and if it sounds familiar it is because Walt Disney Studios had been aware of this and decided it would be a perfect yarn of derring-do for their live action division. It had been filmed before, and that version was one of the most famous silent comedies ever made, the Buster Keaton effort The General (named after the central train he is riding on). However, there was one major difference between the nineteen-twenties version and the fifties one, which was in Keaton's it was told from the perspective of the South, whereas in the Disney it was from the perspective of the North, with some conciliations.

If you know the story, or at least have seen the silent movie, you would regard this as a curious choice since, as we more or less are made to understand from the start, the North did not win this particular battle, so essentially we were invited to side with the losers. It was not until the final scenes we discovered why: Disney were keen to emphasise that even in the midst of war, it was possible to set aside differences and come to a conclusion that there were good men involved in either side of the conflict. Therefore the peace that two rivals make in the story, after all the mayhem is over, should be indicative of a nation that has been torn asunder, but will unite again.

All very stirring, but what of the bulk of it, the actual chase? It take us a while to reach it, but the plot starts slowly and deliberately so we can get our bearings, then begins to pick up the pace until by the last act it is rattling down the tracks at a great rate, much like the two trains that were doing the chasing and being chased. Before that, the spies and saboteurs do their best to blend in, some better than others, as big Bill Campbell (Jeff York) bristles every time he hears a Southerner barking out some anti-Unionist insult, and looks perpetually on the verge of losing his temper and breaking heads. Pettinger keeps him calm, though Campbell does get to explode before the conclusion to demonstrate he was not joking about his ability to handle himself in a ruckus.

Parker, of course, had been made a star by Disney in the role of Davy Crockett, becoming a hero to kids wherever that show was broadcast (it was also a film), though he quickly found that fame too brief, and himself typecast thereafter. Nevertheless, he modestly pursued roles in Westerns, most notably many episodes of Daniel Boone in the latter half of the sixties, until he bowed out; a close friend of Ronald Reagan, he was apparently tempted by politics, but ultimately preferred to remain as a cheerleader. On the subject of politics, this movie was surprisingly engaged in buoying the public mood to bring the nation together, though the finer details of the ghastliness of what the Civil War was about were not delved into - we see a few slaves, but they don't say too much. Therefore we were faced with a historical Western where our heroes don't necessarily win, and we're supposed to be OK with that knowing society would benefit eventually, which doesn't quite take. The chase itself was certainly tense, mind you. Music by Paul J. Smith.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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