Western Union (1941)

Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Robert Carson

One of the fun things about watching a ton of westerns is seeing familiar faces show up time and time again, and getting to evaluate each performance or each product on its own, but within the context of the entirety of the marathon. Here, with Western Union, we get to see both Robert Young (Northwest Passage) and Randolph Scott (Virginia City and Jesse James) once again, while also seeing director Fritz Lang return to the genre after The Return of Frank James. Each is bound to pop back up again further along the trail, as it were, but especially with Lang and Scott, any chance to see them at work is a joy, or so I would have thought. With Western Union, I have the unique chance to be able to see a film and a narrative which fails to ever grab my attention for any length of time.

Unlike some of the past installments which focus on the building of the transcontinental railroad, or a trek along the Oregon or Santa Fe Trails, Western Union is about exactly what you might expect: the building of the telegraph line to connect East to West. Our story opens with outlaw Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) fleeing a posse. In his flight he encounters a Western Union surveyor Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger). Seeing his plight, Vance helps the man to safety. Some time later, the two men once again cross paths as Vance is now trying to play it straight, helping the Western Union build the telegraph lines. Smitten with Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), Vance butts head with engineer Richard Blake (Robert Young) who also has eyes for Ms. Creighton. Western Union soon finds trouble when trying to build through Indian Territory, however, and Vance must encounter a ghost from his past and decide whether he wants to be good, or return to his outlawing ways.

I found quickly that Western Union has a distinct feel of too many cooks in the kitchen. The cast is not what many would consider to be “star studded”. Randolph Scott and Robert Young are good, strong names, but the film quickly tracks too many characters, giving each far too little time to develop into anything noteworthy over the span of 90 minutes. Randolph Scott, the top bill of the film is a consistent thread throughout, but even his story of redemption, temptation and rehabilitation from once being an outlaw seems to take a backseat to the silly plotting of his former associates, lead by Barton MacLane, posing as Indians to threaten the progress of the telegraph line.

The project of completing the line never feels important enough to carry the film either, as it has in films about the transcontinental railroad. The love triangle which is supposed to be central to the contention between Vance and Richard Blake is razor thin. There is a solid opportunity there, and Virginia Gilmore is fine, but her role is underplayed. Overall, the film goes too any places with too many characters, lacking a focus and narrative precision which I’ve come to expect from Fritz Lang, whose past and future films are certainly more enjoyable then this. He has proven capable of producing an entertaining entry in the genre with The Return of Frank James, therefore I have confidence he can do it again with Rancho Notorious, but this film is instantly forgettable and insignificant in his filmography.

I enjoyed my time with Scott and Young as the co-leads here. Dean Jagger gets lost in the shuffle, however. I am likely being a little too harsh on this film, especially with my grade which is to come, but I have little to no desire to return to this particular western tale, which is a shame. The Western Union and expansion of the telegraphy line was a major achievement in the history of this nation. It’s a story which should present a compelling backdrop for a decent western, but Lang and company fail to do anything with the material. Perhaps the material is precisely the issue, based on a novel by famed western writer Zane Grey. Having never read the book, I cannot say. But Western Union earns a hard pass for me.

… — … Full Stop

** – Poor

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