Union Pacific (1939)

 

 

 

Director (and producer):   Cecil B. DeMille.

Starring:    Barbara Stanwyck (Mollie Monahan), Joel McCrea (Jeff Butler), Akim Tamiroff (Fiesta), Robert Preston (Dick Allen), Lynne Overman (Leach Overmile), Brian Donlevy (Sid Campeau), Robert Barrat (Duke Ring), Anthony Quinn (Jack Cordray), Stanley Ridges (Gen. Casement), Henry Kolker (Asa M. Barrows), Francis McDonald (Gen. Grenville M. Dodge), Willard Robertson (Oakes Ames), Harold Goodwin (E.E. Calvin), Evelyn Keyes (Mrs. Calvin), Richard Lane (Sam Reed), William Haade (Dusky Clayton), Regis Toomey (Paddy O'Rourke), J.M. Kerrigan (Monahan), Fuzzy Knight (Cookie), Harry Woods (Al Brett), Lon Chaney Jr. (Dollarhide), Joseph Crehan (Gen. U.S. Grant), Julia Faye (Mame), Sheila Darcy (Rose), Joe Sawyer (Shamus), Byron Foulger (Andrew Whipple).

An epic western, the story deals with the supervisor and his many problems on the Union Pacific Railroad line. The movie has a borrowed scene dealing with the uniting of the competing railroad lines of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Toward the close of the American Civil War.  In the Senate, they debate the question of whether or not it is worthwhile to run a railroad across the continent from coast to coast.  Senator Sargent from California speaks for the idea.  Lincoln signs the bill.  General Dodge is the chief engineer of the Union Pacific.  Mr. Ames is a big financial supporter of the railway.  Mr. Barrows is the biggest financier in Chicago.  He has a scam to make some big money off the railway projects.  Barrows wants to build the Central Pacific to Ogden in the Salt Lake Valley of Nevada instead of stopping at the California border and waiting for the Union Pacific to reach them.  That would bust the Union Pacific.  Lincoln had wanted the Central Pacific to stop at the California border.  But, as Mr. Barrows points out, Lincoln is dead.  The United Pacific can only build to where it meets the Central Pacific.  The plan is to sell Union Pacific stock short and to buy Central Pacific stock.  Barrows assures an underling that the Union Pacific will not reach Ogden first. 

Barrows meets with an accomplice, Sid Campeau, in St. Louis.  Campeau will have the job of gumming up the works of the Union Pacific by keeping the railway workers drunk on wine, women and song.  Dick Allen is Campeau's business partner.  The key word for Campeau and Allen is delay, delay, delay. 

For three years Indians attack the tracklayers, but the road pushes on. 

Spring 1868.  The first train, the General McPherson, moves west toward Cheyenne.  On the train the engineer gets his lunch from his daughter Mollie Monohan.  Leach tells Fiesta that General Dodge wants to see them.  Some troubleshooter is going to be getting aboard the train.  The man arrives on horseback, escorted by two military men, who help him board the train and give him his luggage.  His name is Jeff Butler. 

Mollie runs into Dick Allen.  The two know each other.  Dick tells Mollie that he will change his wicked ways if she will marry him.  He then gives her a gift of a fancy fur coat. 

General Dodge tells his staff that the Central Pacific has not stopped at the California border.  They are over the Sierras and have surveyed right to Salt Lake and Ogden.  The Union Pacific has completed 516 miles in three years and still has 500 more miles to go to Ogden.  Dodge says that their crew will get their first.  Some are in disbelief.  They have to go over the Rockies and the Wasatch Mountains with the Indians claiming the railroad's food supply.  Jeff Butler tells Dodge that they had a council with the Indians and Chief Red Cloud said the Indians will lay off the whites, if the whites will lay off the Indians.  Dodge explains to his staff that Captain Butler served with him in the Civil War.  General Casement will be responsible for track laying.  Butler's job will be to establish and maintain order along the railway route.  The worst problem for Butler will be Sid Campeau.  Butler will be the law with the ability to smash anything that will delay the railroad. 

Butler starts his job by heading out to talk with Campeau.  He walks past Mollie who is combing her hair.  Since she is sitting on the break wheel, he has to spin her around since the break wheel needs to be adjusted.  Mollie is not sure how to react.  Meanwhile, Campeau is warned that the troubleshooter is on his way to see him.  Campeau calls in Al Brett and Cordray just in case there is trouble with Butler.  When Butler arrives, Dick recognizes him and they are both very happy to see each other.  The guys are two old army buddies.  Al Brett shoots an Indian off his horse from the moving train.  Butler goes over to him and the two men get into a fight.  Butler wins as Brett falls off the train. 

Cordray plays cards in Campeau's Big Tent bar.  A local Irishman named Paddy O'Rourke charges him with dealing from the bottom of the deck.  In the following dispute, Cordray shoots and kills the unarmed Paddy.  Butler confronts Cordray and tells him to get out of town.  When Cordray tries to shoot Butler in the back on the orders of Campeau, Butler sees him in the mirror, pulls his gun, whirls and fires, killing Cordray.  Butler makes up a story that Leach found gold at the End of the Track.  A stampede empties out the saloon.  Allen gets virtually run over by the stampede.  Realizing Butler is going to be a big pain for him, Campeau tells an underling to get Duke Ring.

Mollie, who is the local mail deliverer, likes Butler and tries to make him jealous by kissing Allen.  She later asks Butler about a letter she has for him from a girl in Boston.  He tells her the truth; the letter is from his mother. 

Leach and Fiesta arrive to tell Butler that Duke Ring has killed Andy Callahan, the foreman at the graders' camp. Now nobody is working at all.  Butler takes a wagon to the graders' camp.  Mollie jumps into the back of the wagon to go with him.  Arriving at the camp, Butler sees that Duke Ring is breaking all the work equipment.  The troubleshooter walks up to the workers and asks where is their foreman.  They are obviously being bullied by Duke.  He tells the men that they should never believe a lying windbag like Duke.  One worker tries to begin working again, but Duke knocks him down.  Ring then says that he will kill the first man who lifts a shovel of dirt.  Butler takes a shovel and lifts some dirt.  When Duke starts to respond, Butler throws the dirt in his eyes.  He then uses the shovel to keep hitting Duke on the behind.  He finally pushes the bully in to a water trough, pulls a huge wagon wheel over it and sits on the wheel.  "There's your bully!" says Butler.  The troubleshooter then tells Duke to leave the camp, as the men go back to work. 

General Grant visits the Union Pacific.  He asks Barrows to lend Mr. Ames a million dollars to cover the payroll for the workers and Barrows agrees.  Barrows then tells Campeau to steal the money coming in on the train.  Dick Allen is given the job of robbing the train.  Butler waits with Mollie for the arrival of the special train with the payroll money.  Leach and Fiesta arrive to tell Butler that eight pisteleros are missing from Campeau's Big Tent.  Butler tells Mollie to have Calvin the telegram operator to have the special train stopped at Pine Bluff.  The bad news arrives that the train has already passed through Pine Bluff. 

The bad guys are robbing the train when the notice is given that another train is coming from the west.  The bad guys grab the money and start riding off.  The other train pulls to a stop and the posse gives chase.  The robbers split up and Butler tells his men to pick a man and chase him.  Butler pursues Dick Allen, although he does not know the true identity of the man he chases.  The troubleshooter is able to fire a couple of shots at Allen, but the heavy leather mailbag filled with money stops the bullets.  Dick is able to get back to the mail car and Mollie.  He throws the bag through the window of the car and tells Mollie to hide it, which she does.  Butler arrives and Allen pretends that he has been with Mollie the whole time.  Butler sees the broken window, which makes him very suspicious.  He says he will have some tea with Mollie and him.  Two of Campeau's men arrive at the mail car.  To save Butler, Mollie covers for Allen.  She nervously asks Butler to leave and eventually he does. 

Allen is very pleased with Mollie for protecting him.  He tells the two men to leave.  He then asks Mollie where the pay sack is.  Mollie is shocked to realize that Allen actually robbed the train.  She tells Allen to put back every penny of the money.  She tells him that the only way for him to save his neck is to return the money.  He tells her that he loves her.  She only says:  "I believe you do."  But there will be no talk of a wedding until he returns the money. 

Mollie and Allen return the money to General Dodge.  Mollie says that she found the money discarded along the tracks.  Dodge tells them that they will hang the man who stole the money from the train.  Mollie covers for Allen and Allen tells the men that he and Mollie are getting married.  Dodge and the others think that Mollie is a hero for finding the money.  They tell her that she saved the railroad.  Dodge says that the wedding must take place tonight because the train is packing up and moving everything to Laramie tomorrow. 

The railroad starts to pack up the whole town for transport.  Butler gets all the Irish railway workers together and they march down to the Big Tent.  Butler stops Campeau from leaving from the back exit.  Butler starts interrogating Campeau.  The gang leader agrees that Allen was the one who robbed the train.  Butler gives the o.k. for the Irish men to smash up the place and they gladly comply.  Butler tells Campeau that a train leaves tonight and for him to be on it.  The Irish then run the card dealers out of town on mules. 

Mollie marries Allen in a church.  Butler arrives.  He says he has come for Allen; Campeau talked and fingered Allen.  Mollie asks Butler to let her kiss her husband good-bye.  When she does so, she tells him a plan.  She then grabs Butler around the arms, giving Allen enough time to jump out the window and escape.  General Dodge tells Butler to go to Laramie; Fiesta and Leach will deal with Allen.  He then tells Mollie that she is finished with the railroad. 

The trains pulls out of the station with Butler and Mollie aboard.  Allen hides underneath the carriage of a railway car and now gets into the railway car where Mollie is riding.  Mollie explains to Allen that she loves Butler, but that she will stay married to him because she took the marital oath.  She tells him that all she is asking for is a little time to get adjusted to the new situation.   

Sioux Indians attack the train.  They pull down a massive water storage tank right onto the locomotive derailing the entire train.  The Indians then attack the train again.  Butler searches through the wreckage to find Mollie.  He finds Mollie all right, but in doing so he also finds Allen.  But, considering the situation, they all cooperate to fight the Indians.  Having access to a telegram wire they are able to send a message to the nearest railway station.  The message gets through and a train filled with soldiers makes its way to the wrecked train.  Just about the time when the three survivors are about to exhaust their ammunition, the train and the cavalry arrive to kill and chase the Indians away.  One Indian, however, is able to wound Mollie.  Butler takes her to a doctor while Allen heads for Skull Rocks. 

Later Butler brings a horse and supplies to Allen so he can make his get-away.  Allen says he will hook up with the Central Pacific and do there what he did for the Union Pacific.  He tells Butler that he will be there when the Union Pacific meets the Central Pacific.  And then he will be coming for his wife.  Just before he leaves, Allen tells Butler that Barrows is the man behind Campeau. 

It is winter time.  The Union Pacific is stuck for 30 days with only 60 miles to go to Ogden.  They have to blast a tunnel through a mountain.  But Butler has a different idea.  He suggests that they go around the mountain to Ogden.  Then later come back and blast a tunnel through the mountain.  The railway men like the idea and so they start laying track on the snow.  Mollie's father is operating the locomotive.  Unfortunately, the track doesn't hold and the train crashes.  Mollie's dad is caught underneath engine parts and dies.  Butler tells the work crew to start shoring up the track.  Another train is brought in to make the trip to Ogden over the snow. 

Butler breaks the bad news to Mollie.  Butler and Mollie travel aboard the new train.  The train makes it past the section where the previous train crashed.  The railroaders give a big cheer.  Now the feeling is that they can beat the Central Pacific to Ogden.  Bad news arrives.  Barrow's man has condemned 27 miles of the track they have laid.  Butler tells the fellows to keep laying the track.  He will take care of Barrows.  Leach and Fiesta grab Barrows.  They force him to walk the supposedly inferior track driving the spikes into the track to fix it.  General Grant selects Promontory Point west of Ogden to be the place where the two railway lines shall join. 

Mollie is packing her things.  Butler comes over to say good-bye to her.  Dick will be at Promontory Point to pick her up.  Mollie pretends not to be upset.  Butler tells her that he loves her.  They embrace and kiss.  Butler says good-bye and leaves. 

The ceremony takes place uniting the two lines.  Mollie is there to see it.  Dr. Harkness of California speaks.  Butler and Allen are also at the ceremony.  Allen goes over to Mollie and they kiss.  Leland Stanford, Governor of California and President of the Central Pacific, strikes first but misses the railway spike.  Vice-President Durant of the Union Pacific misses also.  Barrows now gets the honor.  He drives the spike home. 

Campeau is in town looking to kill Butler.  Mollie tells Allen that Butler is not wearing his guns and is a sitting duck.  Campeau shoots, but hits Allen, not Butler.  Allen tries to grab his gun and Campeau shoots him again.  Campeau runs off.  Butler finds Allen on the ground.  Allen dies in his arms.  Another man tries to shoot Butler in the back, but Leach shoots him to death. 

"And so this great nation is united with a ring of iron."

A modern train is shown rushing along a railway line. 

 

The movie is o.k.   I did not particularly like it.  It is a love story, but a very flawed one.  Mollie loves Butler, but to save his life from being taken by Allen and his thugs, she agrees to marry Allen.  Now any idiot knows that a promise made under the threat of violence and force is invalid.  But the movie wants us to believe that everyone thinks it's a perfectly sane idea for Mollie to marry Allen when she really loves Butler.  Then the movie further insults us by having Mollie make a bold commitment to make the farce of a marriage work, even though Butler will always be her true love.  It is an insult to the concept of marriage to try to make us swallow the idea that it is o.k. for a woman forced to marry someone she did not love to save the one she did love to vow to make the marriage work.  The whole damn marriage was a miscarriage from the start.  And how could the very decent Mollie marry a con-man, a thief and a murderer, unless she is an idiot.  So the very "religious" director can stuff that in his pipe and smoke it.  Screw Allen, screw Mollie and screw Butler.  They are all idiots and I wash my hands of all of them.  And how can they really call this an epic?  When you don't have admirable lead characters, the movie can't really be epic in any real sense.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.  It's downright stupid.   

Another bad thing is that Barrows does not get punished for his terrible scam.  He gets to drive the last spike into the now united railway lines.  The movie treats this scene as a comic one.  I'm not laughing.  The movie just is too immoral for my tastes. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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