Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Written by Walter DeLeon & C. Gardner Sullivan and Jesse Lasky Jr.
Cecil B. DeMille makes his second appearance in this Westerns marathon after the promising The Plainsman, which showcased Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in traditionally well-known western roles. The exciting shootout scene is what stands out from that film, so for DeMille, known for his spectacle, an “iron horse” film sounds awfully promising, especially when given the talents and screen presence of Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, even if the transcontinental railroad has been profiled on multiple occasions early in this trek through the history of the Western filmmaking. It didn’t end up being railroad fatigue which derails this film, but rather a serious lack of narrative focus.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, work began on the enterprising idea of connecting the continents two great oceans by rail. While the idea set out to bring expansion and opportunity to the country, certain people took it as a chance to make an extra buck. When a greedy investor plans to “short” the stock of Union Pacific, banking on the Central Pacific to reach Ogden, Utah first. Union Pacific “troubleshooter” Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) is sent to the end of line to encourage the progress of the Union Pacific, but is met with opposition from Campeau (Brian Donlevy), the agent of the greedy investor, and his minion Dick Allen (Robert Preston), an old army buddy of Butler. Forced to battle his old friend, Butler seeks to bring law and order to the lawless landscape of “Hell on Wheels”, all the while falling for Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the railroad lifer who runs the mail car.
Union Pacific turns out to be quite the roller coaster ride. As the film opens, it has a distinct prestige feel, much like how The Iron Horse felt. A picture more about the accomplishment of the Transcontinental Railroad than any individual characters. But that route changes quickly when we’re introduced to Mollie, Jeff, and company. Then it becomes about how Jeff plans to reform Hell on Wheels and keep the Union Pacific ahead of the Central Pacific. And then the love triangle rears its head and Mollie is being courted by both Dick and Jeff. And then it’s back to trying to save the railroad. DeMille’s film certainly doesn’t lack for ambition throughout. It reeks of a film which could have lasted well past its 135 allotted minutes, but instead settles for abrupt, incomplete plot turns, laying tracks in the wrong direction all too many times.
The performances are fine, for what it’s worth, and there are even moments early on which gave me great promise. Barbara Stanwyck is always a joy to watch on screen, but she delivers a forced Irish accent which, while her character is supposed to be Irish, adds little to the performance other than to serve as a distraction. My biggest issue with Mollie were her character’s choices, outside the hands of the wonderful Stanwyck. As soon as her “dilemma” begins, the film lost my interest, realizing that these were not real characters. McCrea is also a joy to watch. He fills the screen with confidence and is perfectly cast in the authority role. He and Stanwyck show good on screen chemistry, one which feels authentic compared to the chemistry shared between Preston and Stanwyck, further complicating that storyline’s validity.
The film has a moral backbone, supporting the authority of Jeff Butler, while also carefully depicting the Native American response to the encroaching railroad business. There are certainly racist characters in the film, but DeMille, through Butler, is able to carefully address these spurts of racism with careful handling. No, the film’s issues are not with racism, but rather with the screenplay. I quite liked when it showed the railroad coming together. It captured the Hell on Wheels concept of a moving, lawless town quite well. The details it gets right for the most part. But what sets Union Pacific on the wrong path are its larger plot developments, and it inability to focus on the more personal plotlines, those of Butler, Mollie, and Campeau. Too often the narrative is taken away from the main story for an unnecessary tangent which only serves to distract and bloat, neglecting and ultimately rushing the relationships between Mollie, Dick and Jeff. A disappointment to be sure.