Westerns ‘39: Union Pacific


This is Movie #2 of my resumed attempt to examine all five hit Westerns of 1939.

A re-cap for those coming in late (you’ve only missed Destry Rides Again at this point): 1939 was the most important year for the Hollywood Western. For most of the 1930s, the genre was relegated to B-picture status, with cheap films churned out by smaller studios like Republic, Mascot, and PRC as part of continuing series like the Three Mesquiteers. But in 1939, a storied year for the film biz, five A-budget Westerns turned into smash hits that changed how filmmakers would handle the genre for the next twenty years.

Union Pacific is the least-seen of the “Big Five” today. Its gift to viewers in 1939 was an enormous scope they weren’t used to seeing in the Western, or at least not since the last gasp of the epic Western in the early ‘30s with The Big Trail (a massive flop) and Cimarron (arguably the most forgotten Best Picture Oscar-winner ever). Cecil B. DeMille brought his customary sweep to the milieu; although not a great director, DeMille was a superb showman and could handle big pictures in a way that appealed to audiences. Union Pacific is no exception, even if it looks paler besides the other movies of the Great Western drive of ’39. (I’d call it a tie with Jesse James for last place.) It’s a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, what we would today called a “popcorn movie,” although the way it mythologizes Western Expansion for contemporary audiences is intriguing.

The film is based on Trouble Shooter, a 1936 novel by popular Western writer Ernest Haycox, who also wrote the source material for Stagecoach. The screenplay by a trio of writers (Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham, C. Gardner Sullivan) examines the growth of the railroad as an act of national unity. This same theme would later transform into the “Death of the West” story of the ‘60s and ‘70s, where the coming of the railroad signals the end of a way of life—and to a certain extent, the end of a film genre. But we’re a long way from the introspection of Once Upon a Time in the West: DeMille is celebrating the railroad and the power of industry. This is the Western as a forge of American Mythology.

The film begins with a prologue in Washington, DC on the floor of congress to give the audience a sense of scope and history; the idea of the “Conquest of the West” central to the epic Western. The US government elects to build the great transcontinental railroad. But after the grandiloquent speeches, the construction collapses into robber-baron maneuvering. A race heats up between Union Pacific and Central Pacific to see who can reach Ogden, UT first. Banker Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) has invested in Central Pacific to win the race. To protect his investment, he’s hired Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy—who also played a villain in Destry Rides Again and Jesse James, giving him a crazy hat trick for 1939 Westerns) to slow down the UP as much as possible and by any means necessary.

On the side of Union Pacific, Captain Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) is the heroic agent hired to help make sure UP hacks through multiple obstacles: unhappy natives, horrific terrain, and Campeau keeping the workers boozed-up and gunning each other down. Jeff Butler’s job as the UP officials define it: “Smash up anything that might delay us.”

However, Jeff has a personal entanglement in his job. His old army buddy Dick Allen (Robert Preston) has partnered with the criminal Campeau. Dick is also in love with Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the postmistress for the end of the railroad, but Molly and Jeff start to have a hankerin’ for each other. When Campeau has Dick commit a few dastardly acts, the personal lives of those involved in building the Union Pacific explode along with the fiery disasters besetting the building of the rails.

UNION PACIFIC (1939), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

DeMille throws everything  at the screen but the outhouse door. This is a true Epic Western—rowdy gambling saloons, Indian attacks, train robberies, cavalry to the rescue, hard Irish workers, tough bandidos chomping cigars, a sterling clean hero, fist- (and shovel-) fights, a gold-hearted lady, and some quick-drawing. (McCrea blowing away Anthony Quinn’s slimy card-shark is a highlight). And expect plenty of scene-chewing character actors having a good ol’ time. DeMille plays all of it larger than life, whether the material merits it or not, with his trademark crowd scenes and whopping sets. DeMille doesn’t have much interest in hitting anything but the surface notes, but with good material and stars, it ends up as old Hollywood cornball fun. I wish Stanwyck had downplayed the Irish accent, however.

The film’s strongest scene is a tense three-way confrontation between Dick, Jeff, and Mollie after Dick has stolen the Union Pacific payroll and hidden it in Molly’s car. Plenty rides on the scene, and the actors perform it perfectly through DeMille’s customary flat staging.

The movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects because of an astonishing train wreck and burning bridge during the Indian-raid action finale, and another wreck off a collapsing track in the snowy mountains. For 1939, the miniature work and attention to detail are impressive and still hold up for modern viewers.

At a prestige running-time of two hours and nineteen minutes, Union Pacific hangs around a touch too long, which is a general issue with epics. But it contains much of what we now take for granted in the A-budget Western, and these archetypes retain their potency. It’s not a cinematic masterpiece, but Union Pacific helped put the Big Picture back on the Western Map—and when the action starts rolling, it’s a good ride and an interesting look at how US identity through history was evolving right before the start of World War II.

DeMille closes Union Pacific with a wipe to a shot of a modern Union Pacific train roaring across the landscape. I would call this overplaying it (like Stanwyck’s accent), but it’s freakin’ Cecil B. DeMille. It’s impossible for him to overplay anything. Asking DeMille to hold back is like asking Sergio Leone to include fewer closeups.

Next: Dodge City