Movie Review: Union Pacific (1939)
The Civil War might still be going on, but the United States has to consider what will happen after the war. Government approval is given to build railways that will link the eastern half of the country with the western, The eastern end of the line is being built by the Union Pacific railroad company, while the Central Pacific company is heading east from California.
A financial speculator, Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker), has a plan to manipulate the Union Pacific’s stock to his profit by delaying the completion of the line. To this end, he hires Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to run a saloon/gambling hall/bordello that will travel along with the construction, getting the workers drunk, disorderly and perpetually broke. He also authorizes Campeau to take any other measures necessary to delay the line.
Several years later, the Union Pacific construction is way behind schedule, and the company brings on troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), a former Union captain and engineer to see if he can’t speed things up. To Jeff’s surprise, Campeau’s right hand man is his old war buddy Dick Allen (Robert Preston), who’s turned professional gambler. Dick is wooing the lovely Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), whose rolling office serves as post office and tea shop for the railroad laborers.
Mollie takes a shine to Jeff, but is frustrated by his apparent failure to catch on to her interest. He’s far too busy trying to shut down Campeau’s operation with the aid of his comic relief sidekicks Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff) and Leach Overmile (Lynne Overman.)
Barrows is pressured into loaning the Union Pacific money so that they can meet a delayed payroll. He orders Campeau to make sure that the payroll does not arrive, and the vice lord has Dick pull off the train robbery. Sadly, the job does not go smoothly, and a guard is killed.
Some convoluted circumstances later, Campeau’s gambling hall is permanently shut down and the payroll money returned. However, to cover his part in the robbery, Dick has pressured Mollie into marrying him, only to find out that’s not going to help, and he must flee.
A little later, a train carrying Jeff, Mollie and (secretly) Dick is ambushed by Indians. All but those three die before the Army can come and rescue them. In recognition of Dick’s courage and assistance, and their old friendship, Jeff allows him to leave peacefully, and in return Dick tells Jeff of Barrows’ treachery.
More excitement later, the two rail lines meet at Promontory Summit, and the final act unfolds.
Yep, it’s another Cecil B. DeMille epic, this time a Western. Along with Stagecoach, it’s credited with elevating the Western to A-movie status from its usual B-movie roots. It also reflects the growing desire of Hollywood in the late 1930s to unite the country symbolically. This theme is foregrounded in the opening title card, and brought back at the end by the image of a modern train on the Union Pacific tracks.
As always with DeMille, it’s a big, exciting movie, though much less bawdy than some of the others I’ve reviewed. The saloon girls are barely in the movie, and never do anything more suggestive than ask Jeff if he’s lonely.
Plenty of gun fighting and fist fighting though, and a couple of exciting train crashes.
There’s a bit of DeMille’s usual religious theme; Mollie deliberately removes her cross when she feels forced to lie, and prays for people’s safety. The hasty wedding is Catholic, and she feels bound by it. She’s a feisty lass, but sidelined after the Indian attack.
An older Irish woman reveals that she had a child that morning, and is already back at work because her husband certainly wasn’t going to be helping out.
The Native Americans are not communicated with, shown as bloodthirsty and baffled by the things of civilization. Jeff objects to one being shot early on because it will lead to white deaths, not because he’s a human being and it’s murder. Fiesta is a comical Mexican stereotype, but has the advantage of being a superb whip handler; and partnered with the Southern stereotype of Leach. (“The last time I saw General Grant, I was lying in a patch of blackberries, taking aim at him.”)
The racism and dubious history aside, this is another blockbuster movie worth looking into.