Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Ten Who Dared

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Ten Who Dared

Part of the appeal of the Disney brand lies in its familiarity. These films are part of our cultural DNA. You don’t even need to have seen something like Pollyanna to have a pretty good idea what it’s about. But every so often, this column runs into a movie I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes these obscurities turn out to be hidden gems like Secrets Of Life. And sometimes, you get Ten Who Dared.

Based on the journal of geologist and former Union Army Major John Wesley Powell, Ten Who Dared recounts the picturesque story of the first exploration down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter behind a number of other live-action features including such historical pictures as The Great Locomotive Chase, wrote the screenplay. William Beaudine, who had come to the studio through the TV division, was given his second big-screen Disney assignment after Westward Ho, The Wagons!

Producer James Algar, who had recently wrapped up the long-running True-Life Adventures series, led a film crew to Arizona to shoot background footage. He was accompanied by legendary river runner Otis “Dock” Marston, who Walt hired as a technical advisor. They captured some terrific footage of the area, which is just about the only good thing one can say about the film.

John Beal stars as Major Powell, the one-handed leader of the expedition. In real life, Powell lost most of his right arm during the Civil War but unless I’m missing something, Movie Powell only appears to be short a hand. This wasn’t Beal’s first Disney gig. Years earlier, he had provided the narration for the live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart. It would, however, be his last. After Ten Who Dared, Beal worked primarily in television, including a stint on Dark Shadows and the acclaimed PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles.

Beal received second billing after an actor who will become a familiar face in this column. Brian Keith had been trying for years to breakthrough as a leading man and never quite making it. He’d starred in some low-budget westerns and action films like Chicago Confidential and Desert Hell. He’d also headlined a couple of TV shows, notably the short-lived cult favorite The Westerner created by Sam Peckinpah. His first assignment for Disney, a guest spot on the Elfego Baca miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, led to a lengthy association with the studio. We’ll be seeing a lot more from Brian Keith in this column.

Watkin and Beaudine introduce Powell and his nine other darers in one of the most ham-fisted ways imaginable. At the beginning of the film, a reporter approaches Powell as he prepares to launch his boats. Powell establishes his bona fides, the date and setting, and whatever other exposition necessary to understand the premise. As Powell begins to drift away, the reporter asks who the other members of his crew are. “Ask ‘em yourself,” Powell yells. So he does, going down the bank and shouting his questions to each man as they float past. This happens nine times. It’s one of the most awkward and unnecessarily prolonged introductory scenes in movie history.

For the record, Powell’s fellow adventurers include several other notable character actors. James Drury, most recently seen in Pollyanna, appears as Powell’s brother, Walter, who can’t seem to leave the Civil War behind him. David Stollery, Spin & Marty’s Marty, is Andy Hall, the youngest member of the expedition who smuggles an adorable puppy on board his boat. David Frankham, who will soon be back in this column as the voice of Sgt. Tibbs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians, is English adventurer Frank Goodman. Stan Jones, a songwriter and occasional actor who had appeared on Spin & Marty and in The Great Locomotive Chase, plays Seneca Howland. And beloved cowboy stars R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Dan Sheridan round out the cast.

It doesn’t take long for the men to start squabbling amongst themselves. After the crew discovers Andy’s puppy, they order him to pull an Old Yeller and shoot the poor thing. Only Major Powell’s last-minute change-of-heart spares the dog’s life. Frank Goodman pointlessly taunts alcoholic “Missouri” Hawkins (L.Q. Jones) into having a drink with him, immediately resulting in disaster when a fight breaks out and they lose one of their boats. And Walter Powell finds out that George Bradley (Ben Johnson) was a “Johnny Reb” and starts plotting to kill him. You’d think Major Powell would have done a better job prescreening the candidates for this job.

Whenever the men aren’t actively trying to kill each other, they find time to gather around the campfire for a singalong. This happens more often than you might think. There are no fewer than three original songs, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin and Stan Jones, sprinkled throughout the movie. Toby Tyler didn’t have that many songs and it takes place in a circus. Evidently explorers in the 1860s really loved to sing.

Eventually supplies run low and a mutiny begins to percolate. Bill Dunn convinces a handful of men to abandon the river and hike out of the canyon to the nearest settlement. Powell remains convinced that the river is their best option, despite the potential danger. The group splits up and Dunn’s party encounters some Indians who suspect them of being responsible for the murder of some of their own. Fortunately, Dunn is able to talk their way out of danger and the Indians allow them to continue on their way.

Meanwhile, Powell and his remaining daredevils run the river. Sure enough, they hit some treacherous rapids but they’re able to navigate them without too much difficulty. The river calms down and the remaining six who dared celebrate the end of their long journey.

At this point, a narrator chimes in to acknowledge this accomplishment over footage of the present-day historical marker commemorating the expedition. As for Bill Dunn, we find out that his fate remained a mystery until a few years later. Turns out those Indians weren’t as forgiving as they appeared. Dunn’s men met with a bad end, stalked across the desert and dying in a hail of arrows. In other words, there was a much more interesting story here that the filmmakers chose not to tell us for whatever reason. Thanks for nothing, Walt.

For much of its running time, Ten Who Dared resembles a glorified orientation film that you might see at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Algar and his second-unit team did a nice job capturing footage of the canyon itself. Unfortunately, most of it is relegated to background imagery in some spectacularly unconvincing blue-screen shots. When a movie about river running fails to deliver even one exciting river running sequence, you’ve got a problem.

Watkin and Beaudine are a lot more interested in geographic formations and mapmaking than in the men making the journey. When they do delve into their personalities, the conflicts are dealt with in such a perfunctory matter that it’s virtually impossible to care about their outcome. One second, Walter Powell is taking a shot at George Bradley. The next, it’s all water under the bridge.

These are all good actors, so it’s really Watkin’s script and Beaudine’s flat direction at fault. Brian Keith seems to be having fun. During one fight scene, he sits off to the sidelines muttering commentary like an Old West Popeye. But he’ll be much better utilized in future Disney projects. John Beal, on the other hand, is a bland and uninspiring leader. It’s hard to imagine why any of these guys would follow him on this trip. Even his own brother seems like he’s just barely tolerating him.

Ten Who Dared was pretty close to the end of the line for both William Beaudine and Lawrence Edward Watkin. The prolific Beaudine would continue to work in television for the next decade on such shows as The Green Hornet and Lassie but this would be his last feature for a major studio. Beaudine would ignominiously conclude his feature film career with the ultra-cheap double feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. Watkin, who had been with the studio since Treasure Island in 1950, would also move into TV. Later in the 1960s, he’d be commissioned by the studio to write a definitive biography of Walt Disney. The book was never published and he’d only write one more Disney feature, 1972’s The Biscuit Eater, before his death in 1981.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Ten Who Dared is not currently available to watch on Disney+. Nor is it available on Blu-ray. The Disney Movie Club has it as a DVD exclusive but you’d have to be a serious Disney completist to want it in your collection. The folks at Disney don’t always make the right call about what movies to bring to home video. There are certainly plenty of titles in the vault that deserve a higher profile. Ten Who Dared is not one of them. Some movies are just better off forgotten.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Tonka

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Tonka

By the end of 1958, Disney’s live-action division was stuck in a bit of a rut. They’d enjoyed some huge hits like Treasure Island, Davy Crockett and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. But those were exceptions, not rules. They were known more for historical adventure pictures mixing fictional characters with real-life events. From UK productions like The Sword And The Rose to the Revolutionary War exploits of Johnny Tremain to the Civil War adventure The Great Locomotive Chase, the studio had applied the same basic formula no matter what the historical setting. That didn’t quite come to an end with Tonka, the 1958 western directed by Lewis R. Foster, but it became a much less frequent occurrence.

Academy Award nominee and noted non-Native American actor Sal Mineo stars as White Bull, a headstrong Sioux brave. After spotting a spirited colt running with a band of wild horses, White Bull “borrows” a coveted rope from his cousin, Yellow Bull (equally non-Native H.M. Wynant). White Bull loses both the rope and his bow and arrows in his attempt to capture the horse, leading Chief Sitting Bull (actual Sioux John War Eagle) to forbid him from participating in future hunts.

White Bull goes out to find his lost bow and finds the horse, who he’s already named Tonka Wakan (the Great One), completely tangled up in his cousin’s rope. He constructs a makeshift enclosure, frees the horse and slowly and patiently begins training Tonka. After some time, he triumphantly returns to his tribe with Tonka. But Yellow Bull isn’t satisfied with just getting his rope back. He pulls rank and claims Tonka for his own.

The horse refuses to cooperate, responding only to White Bull’s more gentle hand. Knowing he can’t reclaim the horse from his older cousin but unable to bear watching him suffer, White Bull does the only thing he can: he sets the horse free.

Tonka rejoins his band but his freedom is short-lived as they’re caught in a round-up (led by Slim Pickens, making his second Disney appearance). The cowboys sell the horses to a cavalry outfit where Tonka catches the eye of Captain Myles Keogh (Philip Carey). Keogh sees that Tonka has been well-trained and responds to gentle, patient instruction. Renaming the horse Comanche, Keogh claims him for his own and grows to love him almost as much as White Bull.

With reports of Sioux converging on the area, Keogh reports to General Alfred Terry (Sydney Smith) and General George Armstrong Custer (Britt Lomond). While the cavalry troops formulate a plan of attack, White Bull volunteers for a reconnaissance mission. He sneaks into the fort and while reuniting with Tonka is caught by Keogh. The two enemies bond over their shared horse. Keogh turns White Bull in for questioning but promises he won’t allow anyone to hurt him. The next morning, Keogh lets White Bull go, hoping they’ll never meet on the battlefield.

The cavalry forces split up with strict orders not to attack until they’re together again. But Custer, who is depicted as nothing short of genocidal when it comes to the Indians, hears a report of an isolated group in the valley of Little Bighorn. Custer decides they’d be stupid not to attack and we all know how that turned out.

Miraculously, both White Bull and Tonka survive the battle. Tonka/Comanche becomes an honored war hero, the only survivor of the attack on the cavalry side. He’s retired from active military service and White Bull is made his official caretaker, the only one allowed to ride Tonka from now on. In the wonderful world of Disney, even Custer’s Last Stand somehow has a happy ending.

Now you might be thinking that Walt Disney is an odd choice to make a movie based on one of the bloodiest skirmishes in the annals of the American West. You would be correct. It’s based on the novel Comanche by David Appel. Comanche was a real horse who did survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Like Black Beauty, Appel’s book is told from the horse’s point-of-view. The movie can’t quite replicate that narrative trick, opting instead to tell the story primarily from White Bull’s perspective.

The title change from Comanche to Tonka is indicative of the film’s new focus but the actual reasoning behind it is more mundane. Another unrelated western called Comanche had just been released a couple years earlier, so screenwriters Lewis R. Foster and Lillie Hayward changed their title to avoid confusion.

The idea of telling the story of Little Bighorn from the Sioux’s point of view is a good one, as would be demonstrated years later in the novel and film Little Big Man. In some ways, Tonka is a bit ahead of its time, especially in its depiction of Custer as the villain. Custer was frequently seen as a tragic hero in those days. That was the image presented by Errol Flynn in the wildly inaccurate biopic They Died With Their Boots On. Lomond plays him as a vain, half-crazed racist. Carey is frequently seen casting some skeptical side-eye at his fellow officer.

None of this lands with much force, partly because Britt Lomond is sort of bland in what should be a role that lends itself to showboating. Lomond had already appeared as a Disney villain on TV, playing the ruthless Captain Monasterio on Zorro (Zorro will eventually appear in this column). Television seemed to be his natural element as he never did quite break into film as an actor. Eventually he started working behind the camera as a production manager and assistant director on such features as Somewhere In Time and Purple Rain.

It would be one thing if Lomond’s uninspired performance was an isolated misstep in casting. Unfortunately, it’s fairly typical of the film in general. Philip Carey brings something of a Troy McClure vibe to the role of Captain Keogh. This was presumably the role Fess Parker refused to play and it’s easy to see how his laid-back, sympathetic nature would have lent itself to the part. But it also would have been one more ever-so-slight variation on his Davy Crockett persona, so it’s hardly surprising Parker walked away from it. Carey is more broad-shouldered and square-jawed but you never feel like he believes in what he’s doing the way Parker did. Fess Parker may have been somewhat limited as an actor but at least he oozed sincerity. Carey is just another handsome actor playing dress-up.

Carey never made another Disney movie but he went on to an eclectic career in film and television. He went back to Little Bighorn, this time as Custer, in the 1965 western The Great Sioux Massacre. In a classic episode of All In The Family, he appeared as Archie Bunker’s ex-football player buddy who shocks Archie by revealing that he’s gay. And in 1980, he joined the cast of the long-running soap opera One Life To Live, a role he’d continue to play for nearly 30 years.

Jerome Courtland played Keogh’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Henry Nowlan. Courtland has already appeared in this column, although I didn’t realize it at the time. He sang the title song for Old Yeller. On TV, Courtland played the title role in The Saga Of Andy Burnett, another of Walt’s Davy Crockett wannabes. By the end of the 1960s, Courtland had moved behind the camera. He’ll be back in this column as a producer and director.

Sal Mineo was already a major star when he made Tonka and it’s a little hard to imagine what brought him to the Disney lot. Walt wasn’t a fan of working with established movie stars, preferring to cultivate his own talent. And it isn’t as though he didn’t already have plenty of young men in that age range under contract, especially if casting an actual Native American actor wasn’t a priority.

Mineo had been nominated for an Oscar for his work in Rebel Without A Cause and reteamed with James Dean in his final film, Giant. So Sal Mineo was very much wrapped up in the Dean Mythos that began to appear immediately after his death. In the years since, he had cornered the troubled teen market in movies like The Young Don’t Cry. For Mineo, Tonka was a chance to break out of that box and show audiences he could do more than just brood.

To some extent, he’s successful in his attempt. He smiles a lot more in Tonka than in any other film I’ve seen him in. It’s a very physical role and he seems confident and comfortable with his equine costar. He’s not equally at home with all the action. His handling of a bow and arrow is particularly awkward. And in 1958, even the most sensitive portrayals of Native Americans lapsed into the cartoonish and stiff broken English of Tonto.

Tonka represents some baby steps in the right direction toward more positive depictions of Native Americans on screen. But it still relies on slathering up primarily white actors with bronzer, sticking black wigs and feathers on their heads and calling it good. Foster may have had good intentions but he lacks authenticity. Without authenticity, it’s easy to doubt his sincerity.

Ultimately it’s a lack of clear focus that sinks Tonka. Is it an inspiring story about a young man and his horse? Or is it a violent western retelling a dark chapter in American history? Foster isn’t really equipped to turn in more than a fun adventure story but the Battle of the Little Bighorn could hardly be described as “fun”. In the end, Tonka doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to accomplish beyond showcasing all these magnificent horses.

Tonka was released on Christmas Day 1958. It was no blockbuster but it did a respectable amount of business. But Walt’s next live-action feature would be a blockbuster and its success meant that he’d be spending a lot less time and money on historical adventures. They wouldn’t disappear entirely but after Tonka, they would no longer be the studio’s primary live-action focus.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Light In The Forest

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Light In The Forest

The films of Walt Disney are some of the most recognizable and familiar titles of the last century. The studio has done a commendable job keeping most of them in the public eye, so odds are good that you’ve seen quite a few of them. Even if you haven’t, Walt’s taste in source material ran toward popular classics like Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. You don’t need to have seen Davy Crockett to know what it’s about. But I have to admit I had no idea what to expect from The Light In The Forest.

The movie is based on a 1953 novel by Conrad Richter. If you’re anything like me, you don’t know who that is, either, even though he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He’s probably best known for his trilogy The Awakening Land. Those books were turned into an NBC mini-series in 1978 that I vaguely remember my grandmother watching at the time.  

Lawrence Edward Watkin, Walt’s go-to writer of historical adventures, wrote the screenplay. Watkin’s previous script, The Great Locomotive Chase, failed to find much excitement in a real-life Civil War incident. While The Light In The Forest is fiction, Richter did incorporate a number of real historical figures and events into his book, including Henry Bouquet, a colonel in the British Army who is today notorious for coming up with the idea to give Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox.

The movie doesn’t mention that incident and picks up some time later, with Colonel Bouquet (Stephen Bekassy) negotiating a peace treaty with the Delaware Indians. As part of the terms, the Delaware are required to hand over all their white captives. But these “captives” are mostly women and children who have been fully assimilated into the tribe. One of them, True Son (James MacArthur) has been raised by the Chief himself. True Son has no memory of his birth family and hates all whites. But Chief Cuyloga (Joseph Calleia, previously seen as the Padre in The Littlest Outlaw) displays no favoritism and delivers True Son along with the rest.

On the trail, True Son shows he’d rather die than return to his white family by attempting to eat some poisonous mandrake. Hoping to avoid further trouble, Bouquet asks his trusted guide and translator, Del Hardy (Fess Parker), to escort True Son to his parents and help him get settled. Del becomes something of a surrogate father to True Son, teaching him the ways of the white man and helping reconcile them with his Indian beliefs.

Now this is an interesting, provocative set-up for a story. And as you might imagine, a live-action Disney movie from 1958 is not equipped to handle all the complexities and rough edges of a story like this. However, it comes closer than you might think. The Delaware are treated respectfully, for the most part. The scene where they turn over their so-called “captives” to the British Army is uncomfortable, especially in 2020 when stories of immigrant children separated from their families are still very much in the news. It’s not quite clear whose side the filmmakers are on here but they deserve some credit for at least acknowledging the fact that these people did not want to leave the tribe.

Things get even more complicated when True Son meets his birth parents. At first, his mother (Jessica Tandy, already playing a frail old woman at the age of 48) appears like she’s going to be small-minded and racist. She makes him put on new clothes and refuses to let him leave the room until he says his “real” name, John Butler. But later when she’s teaching him English, we realize she’s not trying to make him forget his Indian language. She thinks he should learn as much as he can about everything and asks him to teach her the language of the Delaware.

The town’s real racist is Wilse Owens (Wendell Corey), a member of the Paxton Boys, a real-life vigilante mob notorious for slaughtering Indians in the Conestoga Massacre. Wilse goes out of his way to antagonize Johnny/True Son, even building a scarecrow out of his Indian clothes to use as target practice. Wilse also has a pretty 17-year-old indentured servant named Shenandoe (Carol Lynley in her film debut). And even though this is a Disney film, it’s very clear that Wilse’s intentions are less than honorable.

The movie’s ideology gets particularly jumbled in its final act. After Wilse kills one of Johnny’s Delaware friends, he returns to the tribe. The murdered boy’s father wants revenge but Cuyloga cautions against breaking the treaty. When the council outvotes him, he reluctantly agrees to join them on the warpath, attacking a group of white settlers, including women and children.

True Son is forced to prove his loyalty to the tribe by luring in another group but warns them away from the ambush at the last second. He’s appalled that his Indian brothers are ready to kill innocents. The tribe turns on True Son, painting his face black-and-white to symbolize his two-faced nature and planning to burn him at the stake. Cuyloga intervenes and spares his life but exiles him, declaring he no longer has any Indian blood in him.

Del finds True Son/Johnny and promises to take him back home, hoping that Johnny’s experiences have taught him that there’s good and bad in everyone. Except for maybe Wilse Owens, who seems to be pure evil. Johnny wants to kill him but Del warns he can’t exactly do that. Instead, Johnny challenges Wilse to a fist fight, “like a white man”. After Johnny kicks Wilse’s ass, they come to some kind of reconciliation with Wilse begrudgingly and somewhat admiringly admitting, “He’s white, alright.” Wow.

That ending is really the biggest flaw in The Light In The Forest and it’s a doozy. Wilse is an unrepentant racist, a murderer, and presumably a rapist. And yet he receives no punishment and learns nothing from all this. His comeuppance only serves to reinforce his racist beliefs. This is like Disney saying there are some very fine people on both sides. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

It’s a shame because the rest of the movie at least attempts to grapple with the complex issues it raises. Shenandoe is an interesting character and an effective way to hint at the shadow of slavery without throwing another racial dynamic into the film’s already confused politics. The lyrics of the title song inform us that the light in the forest is love (it is not one of Disney’s greatest hits) because Johnny and Shenandoe end up together. A better, braver movie would have cast a Black actress as Shenandoe and dealt with slavery head-on. But considering Disney’s track record with racial issues, it’s probably just as well they went with Carol Lynley instead.

Both Lynley and James MacArthur made their Disney debuts with this film. Of the two of them, Lynley was the real find. She’s beautiful, charismatic and soulful. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer. So naturally she was smart enough to avoid signing a long-term Disney contract. She went on to a long, eclectic career that included appearances in Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Poseidon Adventure but she never returned to Disney. Ironically, one of her last roles was in a completely unrelated 2003 family movie called A Light In The Forest.

MacArthur came from a show business family. His parents were the great screenwriter Charles MacArthur and legendary actress Helen Hayes. James was attending Harvard when he was cast in The Light In The Forest and one of the stipulations in his contract specified he could only work during his summer break. His performance is more than a little stiff but that could just be the unfortunate way actors were directed to play Native Americans in 1958. We’ll soon find out. MacArthur did sign a contract with Disney. He’ll be back in this column soon.

But this would be Fess Parker’s last rodeo for Disney. No one would deny that he had a hell of a ride, catapulting from obscurity to overnight international stardom on the strength of Davy Crockett. But Walt didn’t want Parker to do anything but play Davy Crockett. Parker had already lost out on plum roles in The Searchers and Bus Stop after Walt refused to lend him out to other studios. And he was getting increasingly bored with playing the same type of role again and again.

After The Light In The Forest, Walt cast Parker in a relatively small role in his next western, Tonka. Parker flat-out refused the part, which was not something actors did to Walt Disney. Walt placed him on suspension and Parker, fed up with the way he was being treated, quit. Afterwards, Parker bounced around movies and TV shows for a few years before landing his second iconic role, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone ran for six seasons between 1964 and 1970, not quite reaching Davy Crockett levels of popularity but certainly good enough. Parker pretty much retired from acting after Daniel Boone, turning to real estate ventures and winemaking. Fess Parker died in 2010 but the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard is still open for business in Los Olivos, California.

Herschel Daugherty directed The Light In The Forest. Not only was this his only work for Disney, it was one of the few theatrical films he ever directed. He went on to become an extremely prolific TV director, helming multiple episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O (which co-starred none other than James MacArthur as Danny “Book ‘em, Danno” Williams) and many, many others. Daugherty had a good eye and his camerawork is more active than we’ve seen in some of Disney’s other live-action features. It’s unfortunate that Walt didn’t bring him back for more.

The Light In The Forest is almost certainly the most obscure Disney movie this column has covered so far. The studio has not made it available on Disney+ or any other digital platform. They’ve never even released it on DVD, much less Blu-ray. It has flown entirely under the radar since its initial VHS and laserdisc release.

(UPDATE: A reader informs me that Disney has released this on DVD once. The Disney Movie Club once had an exclusive Educators Resource collection. I don’t think they do anymore and these Classroom Editions can be difficult to find but they do exist.)

There are two possible explanations for this. One is that the studio fears a Song Of The South-style backlash against the movie’s well-meaning but muddled racial politics. That could be but, to be honest, Hollywood studios generally don’t demonstrate that much sensitivity when it comes to Native Americans. Offensive, caricatured portrayals of Indians are shrugged off as just the way things were. If Disney was really worried about their past portrayals of Native Americans, there are a lot of places to start other than this.

To me, the more likely reason is simply that nobody at Disney has given that much thought to the movie. It got some decent reviews at the time and did okay at the box office but it was never a huge hit. Even the novel it’s based on has fallen into obscurity. Nobody in 2020 is clamoring for a big revival of The Light In The Forest.

The truth is it’s not a bad little movie. It’s certainly more interesting than something like Westward Ho The Wagons! But it is a movie that could benefit a lot from a remake. The dark, difficult story it’s trying to tell is directly at odds with Walt Disney’s rose-colored view of the past.

VERDICT: I appreciate the attempt at doing something a little different, so a very minor Disney Plus with reservations.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Great Locomotive Chase

Original theatrical poster art for Walt Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase

Walt Disney LOVED trains. Model trains, full-size trains, animated trains, historic trains, experimental trains, you name it. If it ran on a rail, he was all over it. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually make a film based on one of the most famous railroad-related incidents of the Civil War, it not all time. The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the 1862 theft of a Confederate train by Union spies, briefly reignited Walt’s interest in filmmaking. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite the thrilling passion project it should have been.

Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter responsible for Disney’s British films from Treasure Island to Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue, had very much remained a part of the studio since the UK division folded. Watkin not only wrote the screenplay for The Great Locomotive Chase, he also served as producer for the first and only time in his career. Producing might not have been his forte but he continued to write for Disney for many years.

Watkin’s 1942 novel Marty Markham had provided the basis for the wildly popular Spin And Marty segments on The Mickey Mouse Club. One of the primary directors on that show was a former editor named Francis D. Lyon. Lyon had won an Oscar as one of the editors on the classic boxing film noir Body And Soul. His first two films as director, Crazylegs and The Bob Mathias Story, had both been sports biopics that starred their subjects as themselves. Having cornered the market on that very specific subgenre, Lyon signed on to The Adventures Of Spin And Marty.

Comic book adaptation of Walt Disney's Spin & Marty

Spin And Marty became an out-of-nowhere phenomenon, almost rivalling Davy Crockett. Considering the success Disney had repackaging other TV productions for theatrical exhibition, I’m a little surprised that Spin And Marty won’t be appearing in this column (although its stars, Tim Considine, David Stollery and second season addition Annette Funicello, certainly will). Regardless, teaming up the director and the original creator of Spin And Marty on a project must have been a no-brainer.

The choice of who to star in the film was even more obvious. Davy Crockett had turned Fess Parker into an international star. Naturally, Disney had placed Parker under contract and now had to generate projects for him to appear in. The role of James J. Andrews, the civilian Union spy from Kentucky who led the mission, was squarely within Parker’s wheelhouse. Andrews may have had a nicer wardrobe but he was still very much a Crockett type.

Jeffrey Hunter was cast opposite Parker as the persistent train conductor William Fuller. Today, Hunter is probably best remembered among geeks of a certain age as Captain Pike in the original pilot for Star Trek. Back then, Hunter had been kicking around Hollywood for a few years. He had appeared in movies like Red Skies Of Montana and Belles On Their Toes but efforts to turn him into a major star hadn’t really clicked. That started to change after John Ford cast him opposite John Wayne in The Searchers, which was released just a few weeks before The Great Locomotive Chase.

Ironically, Ford’s first choice for the part had been none other than Fess Parker. Parker wanted the role badly but Disney refused to let him out of his contract. Hunter later said he didn’t know anything about all that until years after the fact, while Parker said losing the part was one of the biggest disappointments of his career. This would end up being one of several incidents that ended up creating a rift between Fess Parker and Walt Disney.

The rest of the cast was filled out with character actors who would go on to have long associations with the studio. Jeff York, Kenneth Tobey and Don Megowan had all appeared alongside Parker on Davy Crockett. Harry Carey Jr. starred as Triple R Ranch counselor Bill Burnett on Spin And Marty. John Lupton, who narrates the film as Union soldier and chronicler William Pittenger, would later appear in several Disney film and TV productions of the ‘70s. Even the great Slim Pickens pops up briefly as the engineer of the train Fuller commandeers. All of these actors will appear in this column again.

This would be Disney’s first time bringing American history to the big screen (Davy Crockett, of course, having been originally made for television) and Walt was prepared to spare no expense. Peter Ellenshaw again painted meticulous mattes that brought the past to life. Walt himself made sure to guarantee the historical accuracy of the locomotives, working personally with the B&O Railroad Museum to secure period-appropriate trains. Watkin based his screenplay primarily on the account written by Pittenger himself. Artist and historian Wilbur Kurtz was brought on board as a technical advisor, a job he’d previously performed on both Gone With The Wind and Song Of The South. The location chosen was along the disused Tallulah Falls Railway in north Georgia, not too far from where the actual event took place.

All of this research may have resulted in a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events, although Watkin’s script absolutely takes some liberties. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a particularly exciting movie. Trains are wonderful, beautiful pieces of machinery. I’m a huge fan of them myself. But they aren’t very fast. Back then, they topped out around 20 miles per hour. Andrews’ train wasn’t going nearly that fast because they kept stopping to cut telegraph wires, tear up rails and perform other acts of sabotage. When Fuller first takes off in pursuit of the train on foot, it seems at first as though the movie’s entire chase might be a foot race.

The movie seems to be told in increments of 10-15 miles. Andrews’ train gets a little ahead, then stops. Fuller catches up a little bit, deals with whatever shenanigans Andrews has prepared for him, then inches forward again. Every so often, one of Andrews’ more aggressive men will spoil for a fight, only to have Andrews talk him off the ledge. For an ostensible action movie, it’s all very leisurely.

Finally, Fuller succeeds in catching up to his stolen train and Andrews agrees that it’s time to make their stand and fight. But no sooner has he made this declaration than the Cavalry rides in, hoopin’ and hollarin’! Hopelessly outnumbered, Andrews and his men head for the hills, abandoning the train and their mission. The big fight is over before it’s even underway and the whole mission has been for nothing. If you’ve ever been uncertain about what the term “anticlimactic” means, watch this movie. All will be made clear.

Andrews and his men are eventually captured and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Pittenger comes up with a daring escape plan. The plan works but Andrews sacrifices himself, allowing himself to be recaptured so the rest can get away. In the end, only about half the men make it back to safety, where they become the first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The problem here is that the story is being presented as one of great heroics and honor, when it’s really one of defeat and failure. It’s an interesting story but the movie isn’t equipped to frame it in a way that makes sense. Half our heroes are executed and their plan fails but somehow that’s still a triumphant ending? The only winner here is Fuller. He, at least, gets to shake hands with his nemesis in the end and assure him that he was a worthy and honorable opponent. The movie really should have been about him.

Original theatrical poster for Buster Keaton's The General, inspired by the real-life Great Locomotive Chase

Of course, that movie had already been made thirty years earlier. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General was inspired by the exact same incident. Only in this version, Keaton plays the Fuller character (here named Johnnie Gray), the tireless, persistent Southern engineer who pursues his stolen locomotive regardless of whatever obstacle is thrown at him. In terms of historical accuracy, it has relatively little to do with the actual event. But as a movie, it’s a whole lot more fun to watch.

As a comedy, The General is able to make the Union spies the bad guys without anyone raising an eyebrow. The Great Locomotive Chase might be on the right side of history but it’s telling a story where the good guys lose. And yes, this is a very homogenized look at the Civil War that reduces the players to Good Guys and Bad Guys. Don’t look for any larger explorations of the issues surrounding the war here.

On the plus side, that also makes the film relatively inoffensive. African-American characters are mostly absent. Sure, you could choose to be offended by the fact that they somehow made a movie that takes place in Georgia during the Civil War with only three, mostly non-speaking Black characters. But considering Hollywood’s track record with situations like this, silence is probably golden.

The Great Locomotive Chase only did so-so business when it was released in the summer of 1956. But it ended up playing a small role in another landmark event in Walt’s life. Walt’s adopted hometown of Marceline, Missouri, contacted him that year. The city was preparing to open a new municipal swimming pool and wanted to dedicate it to Marceline’s favorite son. Walt and his brother, Roy, agreed to return to their childhood home for a homecoming visit that summer. One of the planned events would be the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase.

Walt and Roy Disney attend the Marceline premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase

If you’ve seen footage or photos of Walt and Roy strolling around Marceline while reminiscing, it most likely came from this trip. This visit became a key part of the myth-making around Walt Disney’s boyhood. The idealized nostalgia of Disneyland’s Main Street USA and films like So Dear To My Heart and Lady And The Tramp now had a basis in reality. Walt would continue to put Marceline up on a pedestal for the rest of his days. It came to represent everything that was good and pure and true about America.

Also on this visit, Walt began making inquiries into buying the old farm where he and his family had lived. He was envisioning another theme park, one that would transport visitors back to a quieter, more idyllic time. Dubbed The Marceline Project for security reasons (Walt knew that property values would skyrocket the second people discovered Disney was coming to town), it was meant to be an actual working farm with living history exhibits and attractions designed by the Disney Imagineers.

Walt’s death in 1966 brought an end to The Marceline Project. Walt had hoped Roy would bring the new park to fruition but by this time, he was completely absorbed in the construction of Walt Disney World, the Disneyland companion park in Florida.

Still, the Disney connection has provided a big boost to the Marceline Chamber of Commerce. At the premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase, Walt told the audience of children, “You are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories are the years I spent here.” Any town would be thrilled to ride the coattails of a quote like that for generations and Marceline has certainly done just that. In 2001, the town opened the Walt Disney Hometown Museum to celebrate Walt’s centennial year.

As for the movie itself, nobody really talks much about The Great Locomotive Chase anymore. It isn’t available on Disney+ and has not yet been released on Blu-ray. The city of Adairsville, Georgia, holds an annual Great Locomotive Chase Festival the first weekend in October (unfortunately cancelled this year, due to COVID) to commemorate the actual event. I’ve never been but I’m guessing that if any movies are included in their festivities, it’s Buster Keaton’s The General and not this one.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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