One of the last bills signed by President Lincoln authorizes pushing the Union Pacific Railroad across the wilderness to California. But financial opportunist Asa Barrows hopes to profit ... See full summary »
One of the last bills signed by President Lincoln authorizes pushing the Union Pacific Railroad across the wilderness to California. But financial opportunist Asa Barrows hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler has his hands full fighting Barrows' agent, gambler Sid Campeau; Campeau's partner Dick Allen is Jeff's war buddy and rival suitor for engineer's daughter Molly Monahan. Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
For the Indian attack on the train, Paramount hired 100 Navajo Indian extras. See more »
All handguns shown are the Colt Single-Action Army Model of 1873. The Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Point in 1869, four years before this revolver model was made. See more »
I look around and pretty soon I marry my wife in Santa Fe. Ah, the best woodchopper in the country. You bet you my life, the best. But one day she gets bite by a rattlesnake.
She did? Did the doctor get there in time?
No, she's already dead.
My wife? No, no, the snake.
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In addition to his talents as a director, as a producer Cecil B. DeMille had a knack for simultaneously jumping on board the latest fad, and finding a niche that only he could fill. Union Pacific takes advantage of the 1939 Western revival, but while pictures like Stagecoach, Jesse James and Dodge City were still moderately-budgeted affairs, DeMille fulfils his obligation to make an epic Western, with thousands of extras, pyrotechnics and a two hour-plus runtime.
DeMille may have been a savvy trend follower, but this didn't make him versatile as a director. What is particularly striking about Union Pacific, and indeed all of DeMille's Westerns, is that it does not show off the landscape. Most of the action takes place inside railway carriages or crowded gambling dens, and whenever the wilderness is glimpsed it seems merely coincidental, and is never breathtaking or evocative. Even in the handful of outdoor scenes, it appears DeMille only feels comfortable if he can build a wall of extras. But then again, choreography of crowds is part and parcel of DeMille's style, serving not only as a backdrop but as a part of storytelling method. Take for example the opening scene at the senate. While the anti-railroad speaker is talking, people mill about distractingly, as if discrediting his words. Then when Dodge speaks everyone in the background sits still, encouraging us to focus purely on him.
While most of DeMille's silent pictures were penned by the brilliantly demented Jeanie Macpherson, for his sound features he had a revolving committee of untalented hacks. Union Pacific had no less than four credited screenwriters and three uncredited contributors, none of whom was especially prestigious, and the result is as dull as, if not duller than the average DeMille screenplay of this period. Unusually though it makes a few attempts at poignancy, most notably the scene in which Regis Toomey ("Paddy") gets shot. But what scuppers this scene as a genuine tearjerker is not the way DeMille shoots it, which is fairly sensitive, but its handling in the script. For one thing, there has not been enough establishment of this character and thus no emotional backdrop, and secondly Barbara Stanwyck's cod-poetic dialogue is corny even by 1930s standards.
By and large though, DeMille's aim is as usual to dazzle and excite us, not to make us laugh or cry. Throughout his career he seldom dealt with emotional material, and here he shoots the dramatic scenes with functionality to give clarity to the story. With the increasingly sprawling narratives of the pictures he was now making, it was necessary to introduce little devices to help us keep track of the secondary characters, an example here being Brian Donlevy dipping his cigars in whiskey.
As to the cast, DeMille always appears to have chosen actors for having the right look rather than bags of talent. Joel McCrea fits in with the pattern of handsome-yet-rugged types that made the lead men in DeMille's 1936-1947 output. Usually it would be Gary Cooper, and like Coop McCrea is by no means a bad actor, it's just that he requires a director who was a good acting coach to set him off. Barbara Stanwyck is a notch better, and she emotes well, but her attempt at an Irish accent and demeanour is grating. While there are some great names among the supporting cast, all of them are sadly below par here.
Perhaps more than anything, Union Pacific fails because it does not really capture the spirit of the Western. Aside from DeMille's not making the most of the scenery, you just don't get a feel of the pioneer life. It doesn't make us believe that its characters ever had to camp out under the stars or came home covered in the dust of the plains. While some historical arenas were natural DeMille territory Judea, ancient Rome, the Caribbean in the golden age of piracy the old west is one he should have left alone.
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