Movie Review - The Great Locomotive Chase

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Francis D. Lyon
Walt Disney Productions

The Civil War has a perennial interest in the United States, right up there with the War for Independence and WWII. Now, the causes of each side were nowhere near as extreme or exciting in nature as those involved in the other wars, and in many cases the armies of the Union and Confederacy simply lined up in rows and poured volley after volley into each other’s ranks until both sides were decimated. So creating a movie about the American Civil War that holds a viewer’s attention without resorting to PG-13 battle sequences or limiting the story to the domestic engineers on the home front, isn’t something that happens very often. Movies that attempt to address the horrid nature of civil war, and (despite its occasional necessity) of war itself, without offending patriotic audiences, are even less frequent. Movies that do all that, and star Davy Crockett—there’s only one, as far as I know.

Well, he may be Davy Crockett to most people, but since the first time I saw Fess Parker, a number of years ago, was in The Great Locomotive Chase, it’s not Davy Crockett that he represents in my mind, but James Andrews, the real-life Yankee civilian spy, and his attempt to cut a long, bloody war short by destroying the Confederate supply lines.

It is significant that I only jotted down around one dozen notes about negative points or themes in this movie, and that over half of them fell into this category. If you’re going to be gravely offended by the two minced oaths, “Yes, by George!” and “I’ll be dogged,” you’ll probably decide to just skip the whole movie when you see that I have to dash out part of this paragraph. The characters in the movie may think that “D--- Yankee ain’t swearin’, and you know it,”* but some of us in the audience may be inclined to disagree. One character calmly tells another to “shut up and listen.”

Violent and Intense Content:
The Great Locomotive Chase is one of the very few true-story war movies that doesn’t show death or blood—only fistfights. That doesn’t mean that it’s a lighthearted and carefree sort of film, though. Captured soldiers are condemned to death by hanging, and their fistfights have the weight of desperation behind them. The emotional intensity of men preparing to face death may affect younger or more sensitive viewers. A description of the battle of Shiloh includes the phrase, “bodies like steppin’ stones.” A few characters have a predisposition toward violence—Confederates boasting about how many Yankees they can take on; Yankees who “joined the army to kill Johnny Rebs,”—none of whom are portrayed as the wiser or the more likable ones.

The Great Locomotive Chase does favor the Unionists, inasmuch as it follows them and eavesdrops on their conversations, and learns from them how to forgive enemies and face death, but the bias is a relatively mild one, and both sides of the conflict are shown to have garnered the enthusiasm of righteous as well as unrighteous men. The story really isn’t about the reasons behind the Civil War, or even, ultimately, who was right, but there are a couple of controversial things it takes for granted. The first is that this war was not a cut-and-dried, good-versus-evil war. The second is that a spy should be of all people the most despised—in his own eyes. The third is that the office of a spy is at times a necessary one, which means that deceit is at times necessary, to prevent a greater evil. When asked how he could stand the life of a spy, the protagonist gravely replies, “I believe in a Federal Union.”

Generally, I don’t give high praises to live-action Disney movies from before the ‘90’s because of their artistic advantages. Generally, they haven’t any. So when I give a movie like this one my approval, it’s going to be for something else. The Great Locomotive Chase is not a superb film, in the usual sense of the word, and I dislike sad endings, but I like this movie. More significant, in my opinion, than who played the leading role, and more significant than the role itself, is the story—and perhaps the moral of the story, which is hardly a resounding cry of “Down with the Johnny Rebs!” or “Down with the… (ahem) the Yankees.” War is a hard thing to go through, even when the issues are clear and uncomplicated, which was far from being the case in the American Civil War. And while we may, and probably ought to, understand the issues and decide for ourselves which side, if any, best upholds righteousness and justice, there’s still the personal, human side of the war to get our minds around. The Great Locomotive Chase is a good reminder of that.

I recommend the movie, but I recommend it based on the themes it addresses, which may be too serious and intense for young children to benefit from watching. Ten and up is probably the optimum age, for this film.

* The swearing comes in during the scene when the spies are eating dinner in a Southern boarding house. A man says, “The governor of Kentucky has four sons, two of them are fighting for the Yankees, and two of them in my regiment. They were telling me that, unless we won, they could never go home again.” When William Pittenger (the main character and narrator) hands Campbell the plate of chicken, it’s safe to listen again.

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