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Union Pacific (1939)

Union Pacific. Feature film. (1939, 135 mins) IMDB

...a film worth watching...


ecil B. DeMille is known for making epic films. Giant sets with hundreds of extras. Productions some say are cost prohibitive today without the use of computer graphics.

The budget for UNION PACFIC was apparently $1 million, but that's 1939 dollars. What is that in today's dollars? About $130 million. While that amount would be a large budget for today's standards, it probably wouldn't be enough to make the picture as he made it.

The film is based on real events, connecting the Union Pacific railroad west with California in the period after the US Civil War, but what is shown is entirely a Hollywood invention of storytelling to please an audience.

You need a good guy, a bad guy, a love interest and something at stack--an objective.

The main objective is to build the railroad, but there's another company building a railroad from west to east. Whoever gets to Odgen first wins.

Barrows is a Chicago investment banker who appears to be helping the government build the railroad, but behind their backs he works to sabotage the construction. He'll gain financially if the construction fails. He travels to St. Louis where he meets Campeau--a gambling operator. Barrow convinces Campeau to move west with the railroad where he'll offer drinks and gambling to the men who work the railroad. They'll be too drunk or too interested in gambling and women to want to work. Construction will be delayed and the railroad won't get to Odgen first.

Enter our hero, Jeff Butler played by Joel McCrea. He was an officer during the war and is now the hired gun for the railroad. His job is to smash anything stopping the construction. He's immediately at odds with Campeau and what follows are a series of confrontations between the two.

What I loved about the drama that unfolds is the fact Butler uses his wits, not his brawn or guns to win battles over Campeau. Here's an example. The train to take workers from camp to the end of the track is ready to load up. Campeau, in an attempt of sabotage, offers free drinks for everyone. The men stay to drink and gamble and not work. Butler bets he can get the men out and working without force or threat and he does. He borrows a gold nugget from Leach, his bodyguard, and tells one of the men he found it while out at the end of the track. The murmur of gold in the ground grows until the men stampede from the saloon and onto the train for work. He won the battle. He does it over and over. Wit and smarts, not guns or brawn. Bravo.

The subplot is the love story. Molly Monahan works the post office for the railroad--a rail car post office. The first time she meets Butler, she falls in love with him, but there's a catch. A love triangle in the form of Dick Allen, played by Robert Preston. Butler and he were army buddies, but there friendship is in doubt because Allen works for Campeau and he's in love with Molly. When I say Molly marries Allen, you won't believe me, but she does. Watch the film to see why.

At 135 minutes, the film is longer than it need be. The reason is there are several climaxes before the final climax to end the film. Part of the reason I think they constructed the story this way was the title. They had to show the last spike being driven into the ground, yet the fight to rid the railroad of Campeau ends well before that scene. To add in more action, our three principals head west on a train and Indians attack. The subsequent battle sequence goes on and on until the Calvary literally comes to the rescue. I'm glad those day of filmmaking are over.

The use of false climaxes and several climaxes in Act III is quite common these days for action flicks, but I wonder if they watched this film to get the idea.

The film was worth watching. Entertaining. Different. Interesting characters.

Yes. A model train collapsing on a trestle was obvious, but, hey, it was made in 1939.

Posted 2009/03/26 at 19h20ET in Movie Commentary.


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