Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Day 5: Writing a Novel—The Deep Blue Hold

Monday, November 21st, 2016 No work on the novel on Day 4. Note: Unedited writings from my notebook for this novel. Square bracket items represent added comments.
At 18:31—Office ... if I use Leänne instead of Leanne how will people react... Y esterday was Sunday and I took it off, plus I was dealing with some mental health issues. I know this story is something that is simply a matter of putting in the time to make it happen. I’m supposed to be working on it as much as I can but I haven’t been doing that. Two main reasons. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on a story. Then there’s the issues of my mental health. Things happen. I get down and it impacts on my writing. I might be using it as an excuse, but it’s clearly something I need to deal with. I have to find a schedule I can work with. Perhaps I need to put this first and cut out other things. Not sure but I will figure it out. A name for the hero came to me. For the moment going with Leanne or is it Leanna? Should be Le…

Writing a Novel: The Deep Blue Hold–Introduction

Thursday, March 9th, 2017 ... I fight my insecurities and doubts and I withdraw farther away from people and life ... I n November 2016 I started work on a new novel with the working title: The Deep Blue Cage. A few weeks after I started, I stopped. I was feeling too depressed about everything including the idea of writing a new novel. It happens to me at various times, with varying degrees, and it is debilitating. The ultimate issue was: Why bother? Why bother write another novel no one will read and no one will care about. I also found I was dreading the writing process more and more. It was painful to think about. I walked away and focused on other things. Or tried to. That didn’t work either. I felt trapped and unsure where I should head, what I should do. I even asked the big question, what the hell is life about anyway. There’s no one answer to this question despite the proclamations of some and because I believe I can think critically, can reason, I look at it from many a…

Day 6: Writing a Novel—The Deep Blue Hold

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 Note: Unedited writings from my notebook for this novel. Square bracket items represent added comments.
At 20:44—Office ... Lost at sea, she's rescued by a ship and wished she had never set foot on it.... N othing new on this story. Nothing came to me while I was sleeping or when on my errands. I thought something would come about, but nope. So be it. I have two chapters written. Not sure if they are any good but they are there. And so Chp. 3 to write. And I don’t see the scene because I’m not sure what should happen. The question is what is the cliffhanger. Nope. 3 about her, not the ship and crew. And I’ve already written the last line of the chapter. She wakes up and feels immense pain. Not sure if I should mention blood in the water. This chapter or the following. So it’s early dawn or not quite sunrise. And she’s in the cockpit unconscious. But how do I write it from her POV if she’s out. Hmmm. I can do it but should I do it? And I don’t w…