Union Pacific Blu-ray Review: The Great Train Epic

Westerns love trains. Almost as much as they love horses and saloons. There are westerns where a stranger comes to town on a train. Westerns where someone must catch a train to get out of town at a certain time. There are train robberies and train wrecks. Some of my favorite westerns are ones in which the train line is expanding out west and someone is buying up land before it gets there in hopes of getting rich. As someone who lives in a small town in which two major train lines run right through the middle of it, I have a love/hate relationship with trains. But I do love a good train western.

Union Pacific, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1939 epic has a lot of trains. They crash, they get robbed, they are attacked by Indians, but mostly they are expanding west. It is a western, it is a train movie, and it is also a racing film. The Union Pacific, which is backed by the U.S. government, and the Central Pacific, which is privately financed, are to connect in Ogden, Utah creating the first interconnected rail line across the United States. The owners of the Central Pacific hatch an idea to buy stocks in the Union Pacific, then cause it to reach Ogden after the Central Pacific gets there and then sell the Union Pacific stocks short. Or something. The film is a little sketchy on the details and it doesn’t really matter as to why they want the Union Pacific to arrive late, only that stalling its arrival is important.

They hire Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) and Dick Allen (Robert Preston) to run a gambling house along the Union Pacific line. The idea is to get the train workers busy drinking, gambling, and whoring which will keep them from actually working. The railroad hires Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) to keep the men working and all troubles at bay.

To complicate matters, it turns out Jeff and Dick are old friends having fought together in the Civil War. They are on opposite sides in this “war” and both men are willing to do what it takes to earn their keep, but that doesn’t mean they’re gonna like it. To complicate things even further is Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck) who delivers the mail to the railroad men and becomes the love interest in a triangle involving Jeff and Dick. The latter is madly in love with Mollie. She likes him alright, and does enjoy the flirting, but the moments she sees Jeff she’s completely smitten.

DeMille loves his spectacles and he gives us several here. There are a couple of great fist-fights, a couple of shoot-outs, a couple of really thrilling train wrecks, and a couple of fights with the natives. They are all good, but it is the quieter character moments that really make the film. The relationships between the three main characters are really interesting, and while they ultimately wind up exactly where you know they are going to land, it takes some fascinating detours to get there.

I’m a fan of Robert Preston and he’s a lot of fun in this role. He’s kind of a good-hearted villain and he threads the line between bad guy and hero really well. Stanwyck is terrific as always though her Irish accent goes in and out at a distracting level. I honestly wasn’t sure at first whether her character was actually Irish or if she was just having some fun imitating the accent from time to time. I usually like Joel McCrea but he feels really out of place in this film. He plays Jeff very seriously, as someone who is very duty-bound while all the other actors understand there are in a rollicking action/romance flick and are having tons of fun.

At 135 minutes, it’s about 40 minutes too long. Unlike other films where I’ve complained about the length but not known what I’d edit out, I know exactly what I’d cut in this film. The opening scene is set in a congressional hearing and we sit for far too long listening to men argue over the railroad. There was already an opening crawl providing the basic information and this scene adds very little information for the amount of time it takes up. Similarly, in the end, we spend several minutes watching various politicians we’ve never seen before bloviate about the completed railroad (spoiler alert! the railroad gets completed). There are other such moments that seem only to exist for our own nationalistic pride and do nothing for the actual cinematic experience. If this film came in at about an hour and a half, I suspect it would be more well-known and beloved. As it is it is still a lot of fun to watch, but towards the end, I kept pushing the button on my Blu-ray player to see how much more time was left.

The treatment of Native Americans is about par for the course for films of this era. For comparison, John Ford’s Stagecoach also came out this year. Here, there is at least the slightest amount of sympathy for their plight. Early on, one of Sid’s nameless tough guys shoots an Indian who is harmlessly riding alongside the train. He does it for sport. Jeff gives the guy a good thumping for it, but he’s more concerned about retaliation than the actual loss of the Indian’s life. Later the Indians attack and it is full of the usual savages versus good white people. The film gets some comedy mining the naive native’s attempts to understand modern devices like a piano and a girdle.

This Kino Lorber presentation of Union Pacific isn’t great. There is a lot of grain present, especially during the darker scenes, and scratches and debris. It is still quite watchable and once you get into it, you probably won’t even notice, but this is definitely not as clean as it could be. Extras include an informative audio commentary by film historians Dr. Eloise Ross and Paul Anthony Nelson plus a bunch of trailers for other Kino Lorber releases.

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Mat Brewster

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