20 December 2000 | Ron Oliver
Westward With Mr. DeMille & The Railroad
Moving across the American wilderness, east to west, the mighty UNION PACIFIC Railroad stretches to meet its rival - the Central Pacific - taming a continent with steel rails. Overcoming Nature's disasters, hostile natives & corrupt politicians, the engines bring with them the people whose hopes are inextricably tied into the railroad's success or failure.
In 1939, Hollywood's Golden Year, kingpin director Cecil B. DeMille presented his biggest, flashiest film yet. It was to be nothing less than the story of how the American West was conquered by the great railroads & her indomitable builders. To realize DeMille's vision on the screen, Paramount allocated hundreds of extras & large coffers of money to the project. Authentic rolling stock was acquired. The president of the contemporary Union Pacific enthusiastically sent his finest track layers to work in the film. The movie would boost train wrecks (two of em), Indian attacks, assorted villainies & a compelling love triangle.
DeMille demanded scrupulous attention to detail and his crowd scenes are very well conceived & produced. His early reels tend to be a bit preachy in touting the virtues of the railroad, but action scenes quickly follow which amply compensate for this. DeMille's subject matter & obvious patriotism help him to avoid the lapses of taste & vulgarities in which he tended to stray in many of his other film forays.
Even with a fake Irish brogue, Barbara Stanwyck charms in her role as a railroad postmistress & engineer's daughter. Feisty & volatile, always great fun to watch, it's easy to see why she's loved by both Joel McCrea (the hero) & Robert Preston (the antihero). Both gentlemen give good rousing performances in roles that might have strayed into the stereotypical, but never do.
Brian Donlevy, as the villain, gives another vivid portrait in what is rather a small role, but very much like the one he would play that same year in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN.
Akim Tamiroff & Lynne Overman are especially enjoyable as McCrea's scruffy, rather repulsive security enforcers; with whip & guns, these are two hombres you wouldn't want to tangle with. Robert Barrat as a murdering bully & Regis Toomey as a sweet-natured Irish worker, give impressive cameos. Anthony Quinn appears for a couple of scenes as a gambler who unwisely pulls a gun on McCrea, and lovely Evelyn Keyes has a scant few screen moments as a telegrapher's wife.
Sharp-eyed movie mavens may (or may not) be able to spot among the uncredited players Monte Blue, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody, Will Geer, Noble Johnson, Elmo Lincoln & Mala playing various Indians, gamblers or railwaymen.
It would be most intriguing to run UNION PACIFIC in a double bill with John Ford's 1924 epic THE IRON HORSE, which tells the same historical story, but with a different artistic tack & fictional characters.