Union Pacific (1939)

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  • directed by Cecil B. DeMille
  • starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Brian Donleavy, Akim Tamiroff
  • A crooked politician tries to stop construction of the first intercontinental railroad.

“There’s nothing like hearing an engine whistle in the still night.”

Where Stagecoach introduced sophisticated stunt work and a more skilled filmmaking approach to the typically low-key Western film, Union Pacific was right there with it, also expanding the scope of the genre to epic proportions. In the film, Demille delivers beautiful imagery and situations typical to what we think of Westerns, but then brings the action outside of the often-relied on isolated setting to multiple locations along the railroad, then going even further to tether it to the nation at large.

I saw Union Pacific as sort of three movies in one. On one hand it deals with themes both social and political, periodically checking in on General Grant, project managers, and treasury folks in Washington as they try to clear the hurdles that arise from taking on such a big-budget endeavor. DeMille clearly marks this rail project as representing the forward-moving progress of a U.S. still very much broken from the Civil War. The physical connecting of East to West also lent itself to another meaning upon the film’s release, as the U.S. was also attempting to regain unity and patriotism coming out of the Great Depression and into WWII. Secondly, there is the Native American or “injun” factor. John Ford grew to paint Native Americans with a broader brush with some of his works, but in this case just like in Stagecoach, the Sioux tribe and the other Native Americans that threaten progress are depicted as savages and pests. Nevermind that westward development encroached and destroyed their homes, families, and cultures; they, according to Ford, DeMille, and also popular American folklore, are akin to disease-ridden mosquitoes. They can be deterred, as we see in the scene where the woman is instructed to keep her window closed and dark, but even when unseen all throughout the film, they are always said to be watching and lurking somewhere nearby.

DeMille was able to use these two threads, both rich in story and deserving of their own individual films, to enhance what was the main narrative, itself a captivating story filled with great performances. The story follows old war buddies Dick and Jeff who cross paths after battle and find themselves on opposite sides of the construction effort. Jeff is employed to make sure all aspects of building go smoothly and Dick, along with partner Sid Campeau, are paid handsomely to stall and derail. Unlike in Washington where the same fight takes place politically, Dick, Jeff, Sid, and the opposing teams they lead live by the Wild West code of force—guns and justice. Complicating the strained friendship of Jeff and Dick is Stanwyck’s Mollie Monahan, who’s in charge of the travelling postal car, is on the road to marry Dick, but also has her eye on Jeff. The character of Mollie, the spunky engineer’s daughter and nobody’s maid, spits in the face of typical Western gender roles. Through her toughness she’s somehow able to remain loyal to both parties even with each gun pointed at the other. This exemplifies one of the many aspects of the story to which I most connected. Jeff and Dick’s relationship, even at its most tense, such as it was in the brilliant scene where Mollie helps stash away the stolen loot and Jeff comes looking for it, always stays cordial and loving. Sometimes so much that a direct death threat or a line about stealing his wife could be followed by pats on the shoulder. I think they knew each other on a very base level with both aware that if they could just survive the conflict long and far enough, they’ll come out the other side in peace. That almost happens, but this is a Western after all. Adding to this complicated relationship is Mollie, who herself displays no less than a handful of different faces, moods, and intentions throughout.

I suppose this is sacrilegious but I enjoyed this much more than I did Stagecoach. Yes, John Ford was able to create the perfect version of the Western as it had been laid out, but it rarely if ever colored outside the lines of the genre. DeMille went and blew a hole right in the middle of the coloring book and as a result all boundaries were pushed. I’m thinking that both have to be at least top ten Westerns of all time (I will be able to confirm this as I continue trekking through the works of Ford, Hawks, Leone, and Peckinpah, among others). What amazed me was that the three distinct threads, some of which containing scenes that were thousands of miles apart, could all come together so seamlessly and paint such a full picture of the country at the time. This also contributed to there being something like three or four different climaxes in the film. There were great train chases, train crashes, horse chases, fights, shootouts, and if I wasn’t floored by that alone, there was an intricate and effectively acted main story going on as the foundation of it all. It was just great and I don’t know think any director that could juggle so many pieces and have them fit like DeMille.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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