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Film Review: The Great Locomotive Chase
In 1956, Francis D. Lyon released The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the real Great Locomotive Chase that occurred during the American Civil War in 1862. Starring Fess Parker, Jeffrey Hunter, Jeff York, John Lupton, Eddie Firestone, Kenneth Tobey, Don Megowan, Claude Jarman, Harry Carey, Jr., Leonard P. Geer, George Robotham, Stan Jones, Marc Hamilton, John Wiley, Slim Pickens, Morgan Woodward, Chuck Roberson, Dick Sargent, and Dale Van Sickel, the film grossed $1.7 million at the box office.
James J. Andrews leads a group of Union soldiers in the various Ohio regiments who have volunteered to go behind enemy lines in civilian clothes to steal a Confederate train and drive it back to Union lines. Along the way, they must act like Southerners looking to join the Confederate army and when they get the train, they tear up the tracks, destroy bridges and cut telegraph lines.
Though only a moderately decent film, The Great Locomotive Chase is still quite interesting. The plot is pretty standard for that of a film depicting war and sabotage in the 1950s, showing the characters having to traverse through enemy lines undercover, betraying their consciences in order to make it to their destination and when they do make it, there’s some good tense scenes surrounding everything that happens after they capture the train. For one, Fuller, the conductor of the train they’ve stolen, is hot on their trail once he’s realized what they’ve done and the film does well in producing the tenseness of how close he gets to the saboteurs. There’s also the point when the train has to wait for another train to leave a station before the Union soldiers can keep moving. Though nothing really happens during it, the fact that they could be found out any moment and will have to start shooting along with the aforementioned conductor following them makes for some good tension.
However the reason the film is only moderately decent when it has a good plot is what happens at the ending. Eventually the conductor does catch up with them and the Union soldiers are sent to prison. They attempt to escape and some of them are recaptured, including the main character, only to await an execution. While this ending is most likely due to wanting to stay true to history, this really has an anticlimactic and depressing feel to it and it seems that the film should have ended earlier. Once the soldiers have been captured and the trains have been all but abandoned, the film loses its excitement and tension. Even the attempted breakout doesn’t have the same amount of tension than anything else in the film had, especially when the audience is flatly told in the first scene that some of these people didn’t make it.
Even knowing that some characters didn’t make it in the beginning did provide some good tension, considering there’s the expectation that something’s going to happen to thin out the number of soldiers. However, when it’s clear that the reason some of them didn’t make it are because they got recaptured and put back in prison for an execution, it brings about a feeling of cheapness, almost as if all the previous tension was for naught and that the ending wasn’t properly set up.
Still though, Andrews is a great character, especially as a lead. He does a good job of making it clear to the soldiers he’s bringing with him that it’s essentially a fool’s errand and that no one would be thought less of if they left before the mission started. What’s more is that when the mission is in full swing, it shows just how good he is at maintaining a cover, seen when the Confederate conductor is initially suspicious and Andrews is able to come up with a fake story on the spot. He’s also seen as realizing that just because he and the conductor are enemies simply because of the war, they normally wouldn’t be in any under circumstances, causing him to offer his hand to preemptively bury the hatchet before the end of the war since Andrews wouldn’t be able to due to the execution.
The other characters are great at sticking to their covers too or at least most of them are. Notably, there is one who can’t bring himself to act like a Southerner as it betrays his conscience, showing just how dearly he holds to his positions as a Union soldier.
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