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.
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.