Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Union Pacific - 1939
“Union Pacific” (1939) is a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle on the joining of the transcontinental railroad, making this great big country a little smaller, or as it is said, uniting the country “with a wedding ring of iron”.
No longer did passengers need to suffer the dangers of a prairie crossing in a Conestoga wagon, or round Cape Horn in a six-month sea journey around South America to get to the west coast of the U.S. It seems we have Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to thank.
As it is said of her, “She belongs to the railroad, although you’d think the railroad belonged to her.” She uses an Irish accent in this film, which is pretty credible when she holds onto it, but she seems a bit self-conscious in this movie, as if trying to hold onto that accent is taking all her concentration. She seems much less natural and relaxed than in other performances.
One of the film’s stunning images comes at the very beginning when we see her standing precariously atop the car of firewood on the moving train, bringing her engineer father, played by J. M. Kerrigan, his dinner pail. They lovingly verbally abuse each other in the manner of Irish families.
Joel McCrea is the other “Captain Butler” of 1939, an ex-soldier from the Civil War now on security duty for the railroad, keeping crooks like Brian Donlevy in order. Robert Preston is McCrea’s old army buddy, who is now in league with the evil Mr. Donlevy.
Oh, the train wrecks are startling, but not really surprising. I think we expected them.
The scene with the heard of bison roaming around Stanwyck’s and McCrea’s solitary handcart looks a bit more artificial, technically. Unlike the Sioux that look so picturesque watching the train from their ponies, there is no sense of foreshadowing of doom for the bison, though we know most of them were decimated by white hunters shooting them for sport, often right from trains.
The murderer falls off the train platform. We see him roll in the dirt, and the train pulls off into the sunset, becoming smaller and smaller while the land gets bigger and wider, with the lone figure standing in the foreground. He is made small and insignificant in the shot, now that the train has pulled away, and tension builds as he is also probably in danger from the warrior’s tribe when they catch up with him, alone and unprotected.
The train is a world unto itself, and when it leaves in the distance, it takes civilization, protection, and companionship with it. But, the is not a very comfortable world, the hard train seats, the soot and smoke, the days on end of riding a swaying, narrow wooden box across an enormous wilderness.
In this world where the train is everything, the most iconic image, of course, is the final Golden Spike scene, where a bit of humor is injected when conniver Henry Kolker, having been forced by Tamiroff and Overman to pay for his evil deeds by driving spikes with a sledgehammer until he’s surprisingly gotten very good at it, does the honors.
I understood nothing of the history or the politics in the plot of the movie (even Ulysses S. Grant shows up at one point), but the images were easy enough for even a child to grasp. Maybe that’s what Mr. DeMille really excelled at, a simplified but still dramatic image. Most of his epics have more splash than depth, but they are eyecatching.
This post is part of our celebration of National Train Day, this Saturday May 7th. The train has an unusually iconic place not just in our history, but in classic films. This movie, throughout the jumble of carnival showmanship, imagines how important the train was to a 19th Century America with growing pains. It also shows Hollywood’s love of the train as a set, as a metaphor, and as a plot device.
Trains would continue to be important to America in the first half of the 20th Century, and to the movies for the first several decades of the film industry. Come back Thursday when we’ll have a look at “The Narrow Margin” (1952), which shows the other end of the romantic timeline of the train in American history and American film. It’s a sleek, modern train, faster and more elegant. There are no pioneers on this trip, even though it’s heading west to California, but there is plenty of danger, and almost all of it is on board.
And have a look here for National Train Day this coming Saturday.