Cinemascope was the first widescreen filming process which through the use of a simple lens attached to a regular 35mm film camera was able to capture panoramic scenes not previously possible. The final result was an image that was two-and-a-half times as wide as it was high and resulted in an aspect ratio closely resembling that of human eyesight. The first film to utilize this sumptuous technique was The Robe in 1953. It was a grand and beautiful new way of seeing a film and, within a year, others were being shot using the widescreen lens and theatres across America were being converted to accommodate the new process with a wider, slightly curved projection screen.
Of all the hundreds of wonderful Cinemascope films released between 1953 and 1967, we chose The Great Locomotive Chase for our post because of its great use of location settings which were really emphasized by the wide-camera lens and, of course, because it is a Disney film...only the second Disney production to use the new process.
James J. Andrews was a Union spy who, along with a regiment of volunteer soldiers, was ordered to penetrate the South. Pretending to be Kentucky civilians on their way to join the Confederate army, they were to board a train, abscond with it and, then, chugging along on the track northward, burn all the bridges behind them. It was an excellent plan and, had it succeeded, would have made fools of the Confederates and have thrown a major wrench in the war, for the South was receiving supplies from this one main railroad line.
Buster Keaton had filmed a humorous version of this famous event in his 1926 silent classic The General, but Walt wanted this version to be more serious and to bring the history and adventure of the circumstances alive to his viewers. The production team accomplished this quite admirably and The Great Locomotive Chase brims with excitement, especially throughout the chase sequences.
Selecting Cinemascope for this production was a wise choice because it allowed the camera to capture much more of the beautiful scenery of Northern Georgia during the autumn months, and the striking scenes of the vintage locomotives passing along the entire length of the picture. Oddly enough, the best background sceneries were not filmed at all, but were drawn by that talented matte artist Peter Ellenshaw.
Walt Disney was busy with the construction of Disneyland during the making of The Great Locomotive Chase and so he did not have an opportunity to oversee the production as much as he hoped. However, he left the film in good hands under the capable eye of screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin. This would be his first, and only, outing as a producer. Watkin wrote the story for this film and went on to write the screenplays for several other great Disney productions including Darby O'Gill and the Little People ( 1959 ).
Walt was a great train enthusiast and, for this film, he went to great lengths to obtain authentic railroad cars used during the Civil War. These were eventually acquired through the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum and the credits acknowledge their "generous cooperation".
In addition to Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter, the cast includes Jeff York as a hot-headed Union soldier who is more trouble than help, John Lupton as William Pittenger, a level-headed schoolteacher and the narrator of the story, and a supporting cast which included Kenneth Tobey, Claude Jarman Jr, Slim Pickens, Harry Carey Jr, Eddie Firestone and a young uncredited Dick Sargeant.
When The Great Locomotive Chase was released in theatres on June 20, 1956, critics praised it and audiences loved it. Because of its success,Walt Disney continued to procure stories of historical significance for use in his upcoming live-action films, and Fess Parker went on to star in other productions of a similar vein.
To read more about the Cinemascope process, check out the Widescreen Museum's reproduction of a 1953 article which explains this simple technique: The Cinemascope Process.