Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Great Locomotive Chase ( 1956 )

Over at Wide Screen World, Rich is hosting the fantastic Cinemascope Blogathon along with Becky from ClassicBecky's Brain Food. It will be running between March 13-16th, so if you enjoy reading this post then head on over to their sites and check out all the wonderful articles about Cinemascope films. 

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. 


Fess Parker was making a hit with younger audiences in his role of Davy Crockett on television and in the live-action film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier ( 1955 ), so Walt Disney decided to cast him as the lead in his latest project about the Andrews Raiders and their daring theft of the locomotive, The General, during the Civil War. 

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. 


However, Andrews did not reckon with the dogged persistence of a young conductor, William A. Fuller ( portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter ), who certainly was not happy to find his train stolen from under his very nose! 

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.

14 comments:

  1. I bet this was an amazing film to see in an actual CinemaScope theatre. If I were a kid when this was released, I would probably make my parents take me to see it every weekend.

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    1. Oh heck, if I were a kid in the 1950s I'd be going to see ANY film every weekend! But you're quite right, the color in this film really pops out in the train chase sequences and makes it extra special.

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  2. It's 'Wide Screen World,' although Worldwide Cinema isn't a bad alternate title...

    I knew there was another version of Keaton's 'General,' but I didn't know what it was until now. It looks like it might be pretty good. Too bad Disney doesn't make movies like this anymore, instead of acquiring other properties and churning out franchises by the truckload.

    Thanks for your post.

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    1. Oh goodness gracious! I had typed in Worldwide Cinema as a filler until I got your link set up, and then I went and edited the post and forgot to fix the most important part! Glad you enjoyed the article, Rich. The film is worth watching, although the ending does leave a little more to be desired. I loved Disney's "historical" period of live-action films...after The Shaggy Dog the studio focused on comedies, but now the Disney films bare no resemblance at all to the ones of their past.

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  3. I haven't seen this movie since I was a kid. Back then it felt as if history had come alive. Disney really knew how to grab youngsters attention and keep it.

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    1. They sure did. I especially enjoy Disney's "medieval" films. That was a subject in history that I always dreaded, but after watching The Sword and the Rose or The Fighting Prince of Donegal, I fell in love with that period of time! ( But not enough to want to live back then, of course )

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  4. Ooooh - I want to see this! As I am learning, westerns were just about the best thing about Cinemascope. Great post!

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    1. Westerns AND historical epics....probably because those two genres focused on lush landscape photography. What would Demetruis and the Gladiators look like without Cinemascope?? The Great Locomotive Chase is quite enjoyable, at least we thought so...and I hope you do too, when you get a chance to see it.

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  5. I'm a real fan of historical epics, and as you say, what would they be without Cinemascope?! I actually don't think Demetrius and the Gladiators was a very good movie, but I have to watch it whenever it comes on -- it's just plain beautiful. Thanks for a wonderful article for the blogathon!

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    1. Yes, Demetrius wasn't the most exciting film of its time, but I too cannot resist watching it for it's color ( and all those great sets ). I had wanted to write about The Egyptian for this blogathon, but just didn't have the time to watch it again and so The Great Locomotive Chase was chosen instead. However, The Egyptian is another one of those "ancient" films that looks just beautiful in Cinemascope. Glad you enjoyed the post Becky!

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  6. I'd be interested to see this - I didn't realise there was another version of 'The General' story. It would also be a good one to watch with my husband as he is a steam train buff! Enjoyed your piece.

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    1. A steam train buff? Oh then he certainly must see this film! I believe it is an American 4-4-0 train that was used in the picture, but don't quote me on that. Fess Parker wasn't the most exciting of actors, but this film suited him well and he handled the part okay. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  7. I would love to see this movie, particularly on the big screen, to see the full scope of it. I had never even heard of this one before this post, but I will be on the lookout for it now, that's for sure!

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  8. This looks like a great showcase for CinemaScope, it's a shame it's not possible to easily appreciate it in its full glory today. But perhaps that just makes it seem a bit more magical. Looking forward to seeing this one!

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