05 May 2009

Movie review: Union Pacific

Union Pacific (1939)
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Starring Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Ridges, Henry Kolker.

The year 1939 CE was the most important year for the American Western. During most of the 1930s, the genre was relegated to B-picture status, and the majority of the films churned out came from smaller studios like Republic, Mascot, and PRC as part of continuing series like the Three Mesquiteers. But in 1939, five A-budget Westerns from the major studios turned into smash hits that changed how filmmakers would handle the genre for the next twenty years.

Dodge City gave adult audiences a taste of great Western action and adventure, with deft direction from Michael Curtiz and a dashing performance from Errol Flynn as a different sort of Old West hero. Director Henry King’s Jesse James flipped around to the other side of the law, and kicked off a flood of outlaw-themed Westerns. Destry Rides Again gave audiences a different kind of Western comedy filled with parody. Stagecoach… well, what can you say about a film that revitalized the career of director John Ford, turned a B-movie performer like John Wayne into the biggest film celebrity in history, and has been called by film historians “the most important sound Western ever made”? (Gone with the Wind won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. But in my fantasy world, Stagecoach swept all the statues. Eat it, David O. Selznick! John Ford forever!)

Finally, there’s Union Pacific, the least-seen of the “Big Five” today. Its gift to the Western-viewing public of 1939 was that of an enormous scope they weren’t used to seeing in the genre. Cecil B. DeMille brought his customary sweep to the milieu; although not a great director, DeMille was a great showman and could handle big pictures in a way that appeals to audiences both then and now. Union Pacific is no exception, even if it looks a bit paler beside the other four movies of the Great Western drive of ’39. It remains a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser.

The films starts with a Washington, D.C. prologue on the floor of congress to give the audience the sense of scope and history—the idea of the “Conquest of the West,” one of the major subgenres of the Western, or as I like to call it, the “Epic Western.” The government elects to build the great transcontinental railroad, but after the grandiloquent speeches, the construction turns into robber-baron maneuvering. It becomes a race between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific to see who can reach Ogden, UT first. Banker Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) has invested in the Central Pacific to win the race, and to protect his investment he’s hired Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to slow down the U.P. 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 U.P. hacks through multiple obstacles: unhappy natives, horrific terrain, and Campeau keeping all the workers boozed-up and gunning each other down. Jeff Butler’s job as the U.P. officials define it: “Smash up anything that might delay us.”

However, Jeff has a personal entanglement. His old army buddy Dick Allen (Robert Preston) has joined into a partnership with the criminal Campeau. Dick’s also in love with Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the post-mistress for the end of the railroad, but Molly and Jeff start to have a hankerin’ for each other. When Campeau has Dick commit some dastardly acts, the personal lives of those involved in building the Union Pacific will explode along with the fiery disasters that beset the rail-building.

DeMille throws everything but the outhouse door at the screen; this is a true Epic Western with 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 golden-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 blast. DeMille plays all of it larger than life, whether the material merits it or not, with his trademark enormous crowd scenes and whopping sets. DeMille doesn’t have much interest in hitting anything but the surface notes, however, but with good material and good stars (even with Stanwyck’s overplayed Irish accent) it ends up as classic Hollywood cornball fun.

The film’s strongest scene is a tense three-way confrontation between Dick, Jeff, and Mollie after Dick has stolen the payroll for the Union Pacific and hidden it in Molly’s car. A lot rides on the scene, and the actors play it perfectly even though DeMille stages it in his standard flat style.

The movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects because of an astonishing train wreck scene and burning bridge during the big 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.

At two hours and nineteen minutes, Union Pacific hangs around a touch too long, like most epics. But it contains much of what we now take for granted in the A-budget Westerns of the next twenty years, and these archetypes still have power. It’s no 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.

DeMille concludes the film with a wipe to an image of a contemporary Union Pacific train streaming across the landscape. I would call this overplaying it, but it’s freakin’ Cecil B. DeMille. It’s impossible for him to overplay anything.

I should eventually review all of the Great Westerns of ’39; I have a real hankering to watch Dodge City again as I write this.