Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Union Pacific

Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
1939
The United States of America



On April 28, 1939, a train pulled into Omaha, Nebraska. A daily occurrence, to be sure, but on this day the train carried a different kind of passenger. For that would be the day that Hollywood came to Omaha. Arriving on the train were three titans of Tinsel town, legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Barbara Stanwyck, and actor Joel McCrea. Their trip had taken three days, having made numerous stops to woo crowds. Awaiting them in Omaha was an even larger crowd of 250,000, twice the usual population of the fair city. The calamity was so great that the National Guard needed to be called in. The occasion was the Golden Spike Days Celebration and the Golden Spike Historical Exposition, a four day celebration of the 70th anniversary of the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad, or more commonly known as the First Transcontinental Railroad. The legendary railroad marked the first time that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States had been connected by railroad. Considered one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century, the railroad opened up the Western United States to trade and influxes of immigrants and settlers. But more importantly, it was completed in 1869, just five years after the end of the American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history. The railroad was a sign of American unity for the still-recovering nation.

So why were DeMille, Stanwyck, and McCrea attending such a celebration? The answer was that they were attending the centerpiece of the historical celebrations, the premiere of their new film, Union Pacific. The premiere was accompanied by not only the presence of such great stars, but also parades, radio broadcasts, and a banquet. The festivities were so massive that they were inaugurated by none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. It was, by all accounts, the biggest, grandest, and wildest motion picture premiere so far in history.

And what a film it was. Union Pacific was a sprawling epic that followed the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad from its earliest days as a proposition in the Senate to the day when a golden spike was ceremoniously struck connecting the two great oceans together. It was a Western unlike any other, operating on a scale heretofore unheard of in Hollywood. It featured shoot-outs, Indian attacks, train crashes, whirlwind romances, and tough lawmen. It stunned audiences and amazed critics. Just a few months after its release, Union Pacific was awarded the very first Palme D’Or at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival, beating out other films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the legendary Wizard of Oz.

And nearly seventy years later, nearly nobody remembers it.

It seems inconceivable that a film of such magnitude and impact would be so easily forgotten. Perhaps it was because so many other famous films were released the same year that it was lost in the shuffle. After all, 1939 was the year that gave the world Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Wuthering Heights, and Of Mice and Men. But no, the real reason was probably that it was overshadowed by a film that was released two months before Union Pacific. That little film was John Ford’s Stagecoach. Film historians point to Stagecoach as the moment when the Western transcended its origins as a pulp genre and proved that it could be counted as high art. Add to the fact that the film also boasted John Wayne in the role that made him an international superstar.

But for all of its accolades, Stagecoach was still trapped in the traditional Western mindset. It was a film a cowboys and Indians. Union Pacific, on the other hand, surpassed such stereotypes. It was a film about the West itself, not just its inhabitants. It was a film that spoke in broad themes of national unity, gender roles, racial inequality, and the driving, unstoppable force of progress. There were shootouts and Indian raids, to be sure. But they were always framed by the indomitable railroad, pulsating as its stretched and strained farther and farther West. Union Pacific was a celebration of modernity, of man’s triumph over nature, and the might and prowess of a young nation.


The Completion of the Real Transcontinental Railroad

DeMille framed the expansion of the railroad by focusing on a small number of characters who were symbolic archetypes of the Western genre. In doing so, DeMille recreated on a smaller scale the conflicts and struggles faced by the railroad and those who would fight against it. There are three principal characters that DeMille focuses on. The first is Captain Jeff Butler (McCrea), hired by the railroad to prevent opponents of the railroad, like gambler Sid Campeau, from halting production. Butler represents hard justice tempered by fiery masculinity. He represents a kind of progressive mentality characterized by the Western settlers. The second character is Dick Allen (Robert Preston), an agent of Sid Campeau sworn to hold up construction of the railroad. He represents a more traditional, homey form of masculinity that in the Old West may have been called foppish. Although he is an enemy agent of the railroad, he holds emotional ties with Butler, as they fought together in the Civil War. Their conflict can be construed as symbolic of two opposing American forces: traditional vs. progressive, honor vs. profit, West vs. East.



But complicating matters is Stanwyck’s character, a train engineer’s daughter named Mollie Monahan. A young woman of Irish descent, she represents modernity and progress. Riding the rails with her father, she crushes gender stereotypes, feeling at home on the railroad out West instead of in a kitchen with children clutching her apron. She is essentially the ideal “Western woman”: fearless, opinionated, tough, and unafraid to get her hands dirty with dirt, dust, and engine oil. During a later scene in the film when she is aboard a train attacked by Indians, she grabs a gun and starts fighting back with the rest of the men folk.

Of course, this being a Hollywood film, both Butler and Allen fall for Mollie and attempt to woo her. They present her with gifts of diamonds and furs (which she laughs at) and promises of a home and family. Their mutual affection for Mollie proves to be a massive complication, considering how Allen is the more aggressive suitor yet stands to destroy the railroad that she so desperately loves. And yet, after a scene where Allen attempts to steal the railroad’s payroll, thereby crippling production, she marries him to get him off the hook. When he is confronted by the authorities on their wedding day, she blocks Butler so Allen can escape. And yet, her true affection lies with Butler. It is only at the climax of the film that she realizes that she is drawn to him and what he represents: the Wild West, the promise of progress, and the allure of the unknown and uncertain.

While Union Pacific can be interpreted as an overblown soap opera, to mistaken it as a character study or a romance is missing the point. Union Pacific contains some of the most impressive and ambitious action sequences that had been filmed at that point in history. Full scale models were used in a scene where a train crashes off its tracks on a snowy mountainside. For the film’s climax, an Indian war party attacks a train, crashes it, and raids the survivors. DeMille in his usual fashion cut no corners in filming such complex scenes. He hired 100 real Navajo Indians as extras for the raid scene. DeMille was always a master of cinematic spectacle. He had a knack for choreographing huge numbers of extras with pinpoint precision. He built massive sets dominated by powerful performers. And Union Pacific is no exception.

A film of truly herculean proportions, Union Pacific was a testament to both the willpower and courage faced by the railroad workers who constructed the First Transcontinental Railroad. To call it flawless would be a mistake, though. It presents a highly romanticized account of events. With the exception of one scene, there is no mention of how immigrant workers, particularly Irish and Chinese laborers, were systematically exploited and forced to operate under poor working conditions which frequently lead to on site deaths. Indians are depicted as faceless abominations that existed to terrorize the good Christian folk of the railways. But is the film a historical whitewash? It’s difficult to say. It does depict the difficulties and dangers faced by workers. It does depict the political and economic machinations of men who would stop the railroad’s construction in the name of profit. And, finally, it does speak to how the railroad connected and united a struggling country.

Union Pacific deserves to be remembered as one of the true milestones of the Western genre. While it is true that Stagecoach transcended the genre first, Union Pacific went even further. It was not a story of cowboys, but of the West itself. If Stagecoach represented how far Westerns had come, then Union Pacific proved how far the Western could go.



Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Pacific_%28film%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_transcontinental_railroad_in_North_America
http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=94487
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032080/


22 comments:

  1. Extremely well written review,

    I haven't seen this film yet but I'll probably get around to it someday...
    I find it very strange that such a film would have been forgotten, it seems to have all the requirements of a classic, but then again such things often defy logical explanation, some terrible films are long remembered and some wonderful ones are quickly forgotten...

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  2. Tell me about it. It boggles the mind that this film has been forgotten. I mean, it won the Palme d'Or!!!!

    But, again, I think that it was just surpassed by "Stagecoach"'s popularity.

    But then, that's what this blog is for...to bring light to these forgotten films!

    By the way, you say you are only seventeen, but your English is so good. How did you learn English?

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  3. Well, I am English, I was born there and spent the first 9 years of my life there. Although to be precise I'm half English and half French and I've lived in France even since moving here at the age of 9, so while I'm extremely fluent in French, English is my mother tongue...

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  4. Ah. Well, English is my mother tongue as well...

    I'm jealous, though...I wish I could be bilingual...I studied French for five years...but it's not enough to keep up a conversation.

    Anyhow...do you like Westerns?

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  5. Being bilingual has it's advantages, but then again you can never be truly bilingual, one language will always dominate the other, generally your mother tongue...

    anyway, Westerns, yeah I enjoy Westerns, it's a rather diverse genre. I don't enjoy the classic American ones much, I'm not a big fan of Ford's work with John Wayne, but I do enjoy Sergio Leone's film a lot. Those are my favourite classic Westerns, then Eastwood has gone on to do some great work with the genre...
    I also enjoy the recent ones, especially Dances With Wolves and Open Range, I think Kostner is very underrated.
    I also enjoy such "acid westerns" as Dead Man, which is probably one of my favourite films in general...
    then there are the foreign westerns, like The Proposition (which I just reviewed) and The Good The Bad and The Weird, these are just as good if not better than most of the Westerns coming out these days.

    woah, I rambled on a bit there, hope you don't mind!

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  6. Oh, please, ramble on as much as you want! It makes for great discussion!

    How many classic American Westerns have you seen? In particular, how many by Ford have you seen?

    And are you familiar with the collaboration between Jimmy Stewart and Anthony Mann? They made some of the most important Westerns in history. I actually wrote an article on one of them: "The Man From Laramie." You can read that article to learn more about their work.

    I love classic American Westerns...I'm not going to deny that it isn't partially because I'm a patriot and love the American West...but I genuinely think that classic Westerns are some of the greatest films ever made.

    Have you seen the remake of "True Grit" by the Coen Brothers? It just came out. It's one of the best Westerns to come out in about a decade.

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  7. I think I've seen a handful of Ford's, such as The Searchers, Stagecoach and the Grapes of Wrath. I liked the Grapes of Wrath but the other two failed to impress me much...
    Then I've seen some by other directors such as Rio Bravo, True Grit and The Shootist. To be honest that's about as far as I've gone into Classic Westerns...

    And I haven't seen True Grit yet, although I would very much like too, but in France all releases are delayed due to the dubbing process, and since I hate dubbing I rarely go to the cinema, so I doubt I'll see it until it's released on DVD.

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  8. Ah. I see.

    Well, you should try watching more Ford. I'm not kidding when I say that he was one of the most influential directors who ever lived...and not just for his work in the Western genre.

    But there are two other Westerns by Ford that you MUST watch:

    "My Darling Clementine"
    "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

    They're both very different in tone from "The Searchers" and "Stagecoach."

    But here are some other classic Westerns that you should try:

    "Shane"
    "The Ox-Bow Incident"
    "High Noon"
    "The Wild Bunch"
    "Red River"

    Those are all considered essential viewing for the wanna-be cinephile. I can understand that you may not like classical American Westerns...but they truly are films that every film lover should see at one point.

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  9. I have no real problem with Ford's work and Ido plan to view much more of it as well as those others you mentioned (although I've already seen The Wild Bunch). Of course I am aware of the influence of Fords work especially on Kurosawa, so I can hardly just ignore it.
    But I do tend to find early European films much more fascinating than the early US ones but I think that all just boils down to a difference in culture.

    BTW have you seen Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia by Peckinpah, that talk of The Wild Bunch reminded me of it and how much I had enjoyed it, but it seems to be a real forgotten film, barely anyone seems to have seen it...

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  10. "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" is my third favorite Peckinpah, right behind "The Wild Bunch" and my personal favorite "Straw Dogs."

    It has a decent cult following...

    And generally, I don't write about movies that Roger Ebert has already written a "Great Movies" review about..."Come and See" was a rare occasion when I wrote about it before him...

    What kind of early European films do you prefer?

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  11. I wasn't aware Ebert thought so highly of it...

    Well as for the European films, I love the silent classics such as Metropolis, The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, Napoleon, Faust...
    Then in the 40's-50's I really enjoyed Clouzot's work as well as Michael Powell's and of course Bergman's, and Fritz Lang's films he made with sound but before leaving for the US such as M and Dr Mabuse.
    Eisenstein's work is amazing as well...
    as is La Regle Du Jeu (The rules of the game).
    Then I later with the French New Wave loads of great films were made which I love, although I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Godard (a trait I share with my father, who really introduced me to film), but Melville, Truffaut, Malle, Chris Marker are all great...
    I also recently discovered Robert Bresson ad have managed to get my hands on Mouchette and Au hasard Balthazar which look great.
    Then there are the Italians (Fellini, De Sica, Visconti and Rosselini, I didn't care much for Antonioni or Bertolucci) and of course Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou just blew me away)

    this is getting kind of long, lets just say I really love European film and am constantly discovering more of it...

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  12. Same here. It's nice to meet somebody else who shares a disdain of Antonioni...

    I recently have started to explore Eastern European films...It's interesting stuff.

    Maybe some of them will pop up later on this site...

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  13. Well I can't say I've seen lots of Antonioni's work, in fact I've only seen Blow Up but I disliked it so much and was so surprised by the positive reviews it received that I just decided to skip the rest of his work...

    I'm not too familiar with Eastern European films, I've got the three colours trilogy and the decalogue but I've yet to watch them... apart from that though I can't really think of much...
    I look forward to reading your reviews of them!

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  14. I've seen several of Antonioni's films...

    They are some of the most dreadfully painful films ever made...

    I won't be reviewing "Three Colours" or the "Dekalog" because Ebert has already reviewed them for his "Great Movies."

    But that doesn't mean that films from Eastern Europe won't be making an appearance here...

    I look forward, as always, to your comments.

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  15. It's a superb review, comprehensive, balanced and enthusiastic. It almost makes me want to see it.

    My modus operandi is as follows. Before deciding to watch a film, I sometimes, if available, refer Ebert's review to (a)check the stars (b)read one or two opening sentences to know what it's about. After seeing the film, which I invariably do by fits and starts, going back and forth, simultaneously checking historical and geographical information pertaining to it. Having seen the film, I immediately try to scribble something about it, more impressions and reaction than what could justifiably be glorified as review. For me writing is the better part of viewing, even the raison d'etre.

    Conclusively, I read some of the best reviews, say Ebert or Scott, or Mahalia Dargis. I often find my reaction closer to NY Times. This also find how these experienced writers managed to find the words and phrases which eluded me.

    I'm looking for a film to watch after a weeks abstinence. What shall I see? The Cow, Certified Copy, one of theOscar Q, Satyajit Ray or La Dolce Vita? Agonising don't you agree? And this is is a busy week again, so let me see if I can talk my conscience into letting me see something.

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  16. I'd definitely go with "La Dolce Vita." It's easily the best and most influential film that you listed.

    Good luck, my friend!

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  17. 'La Dolce Vita" (which I saw once years ago) of course, but it's waiting for quite some time besides"Juliet of the Spirits", which will for the first time. But right now I'm seeing "The Blue Kite", which is engrossing.

    I look forward to your seeing "Sholay" some day, and curious how it comes across, across the gulf of seven seas.

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  18. Trust me, my friend, it is high up on my "to see" list.

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  19. A while back I took this out from the library because I knew it had won the first Palm D'Or, but after scrounging around reviews online I really didn't get the vibe that this would be something I would fully enjoy, seeing as it is Cecil B. Demille and all. Your review has reassured that even though someone can crank out a monstrosity such as The Greatest Show On Earth, it doesn't mean that all of his movies would be lackluster.

    Also; wasn't Anthony Quinn in this?

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  20. Yes, he was, in fact.

    Also...don't be so quick to write off DeMille. Yes, "The Greatest Show on Earth" was terrible...but he made some genuinely incredible films.

    Just check out his "Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston.

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