Western Union (1941)




Director:    Fritz Lang. 

Starring:     Robert Young (Richard Blake),  Randolph Scott (Vance Shaw), Dean Jagger (Edward Creighton), Virginia Gilmore (Sue Creighton),  John Carradine (Doc Murdoch), Slim Summerville (Herman, aka "Cookie"), Chill Wills (Homer Kettle), Barton MacLane (Jack Slade).

Confederate "guerillas" dressed as Indians try to stop Western Union from finishing the job of uniting the nation with a telegraph line from coast to coast. 


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

Vance Shaw is all alone riding his horse.  Then suddenly we realize he is being chased by a posse.  To get away from the posse, he rides through a herd of buffalo.  His horse gets wounded while going through the herd and he takes the saddle and bridle off and lets the horse go.  He sees a man get off his horse and struggle to get a drink of water from a shallow pool.  Shaw tells the fellow:  "Sorry, but I'm going to have to borrow your horse for awhile."  The man fumbles for his pistol, so Shaw takes it from him saying he will have to borrow his pistol for awhile too.  As Shaw prepares to move out, he sees the fellow's fall unconscious into the pool.  He figures he has to save the man, so he reluctantly goes over to him and pulls him up to a sitting position.  Vance asks the man where does it hurt?  His ribs and left lower leg hurt him.  Shaw bandages the guy up.  The posse comes closer, so Shaw and the fellow hide amidst some large bushes.  After the posse passes them, Vance puts the guy on his horse and walks the horse to a stage depot.  There he places the fellow on the ground, fires his gun into the air and takes off on the man's horse.  Two fellows rush out from the station and find the hurt fellow. 

The depot managers take the fellow in and put him in bed.  The posse arrives at the depot station and the sheriff asks the wounded fellow what's his name?  The fellow says he is Edward Creighton and he is the chief engineer for the Western Union telegraph company.  The sheriff tells him that a gang of bank robbers robbed the bank at North Platte.  He adds:  "It looks like we've lost him this time for good." 

When Ed Creighton is better he takes the stage to Omaha.  Some days later the Western Union wagons come rolling into town.  The company is hiring drivers, diggers, pole men and timber cutters.  Everyman will get at least $2 dollar a day in pay and when they are in Indian country, they will receive $3 dollars per day.  The hiring agent says that Doc Murdoch will check the men out and if he gives his approval, the men will be hired.  A fellow named Herman is very worried about this Indian country.  His fear gets worse when the fellow next to him shows the doctor where he was partially scalped by Indians.  Herman wants to back out, but the agent asks what kind of job he wants and when Herman says he's a cook, the men all grab him.  Their current cook is terrible and they are desperate to fire the man.  The cook says:  "I should have stayed in St. Jo." 

Creighton goes over to see his sister Sue who is a telegraph operator.  She is over talking with Vance Shaw.  When Vance see Creighton, he wants to leave, but it's too late for that.  Sue is very happy to see her brother.  The two men don't let on that they know each other.  Ed just asks Vance if he thinks he can handle all these men and horses?  Vance says he can. 

Shaw starts packing his bags to leave.  Ed comes over to speak with him and wants to know why Vance is leaving.  The boss says he thinks that Vance has a good chance with Western Union if he will just stick with the company.  Vance tells the boss:  "You don't owe me nothing!"  Ed replies:  "How could I?  I never saw you before."  Vance smiles.  And he stays. 

Richard Blake rides into town on a wagon.  He goes into the telegraph office and asks for Ed Creighton.  Sue tells him it's the office across the way.  As the well-dressed fellow turns to go see Mr. Creighton, Sue taps out Morse code for "dude".  Blake, however, knows Morse code too and tells her that she misspelled the word.  She says she doesn't know what he is talking about.  Blake goes into Creighton's office.  There he is introduced to Ed's assistant Homer Kettle and the foreman, Pat Grogan.  Homer figures too that Blake is a dude and laughs at Blake's expense. 

Leaving the office, Sue tells Blake that she is sorry.  Flippantly he asks:  "You mean because I know Morse Code?"  This irks Sue and she turns around and sits back down at her desk.  Blake tells her he will see her again.  Outside, Blake runs into the Territorial Governor, who is insulted by the flippant way Blake reacts to him (without much respect). 

Sue goes into see her brother and asks who the hell was that dude fellow?  Ed tells her that the man's father gave him $50,000 dollars for the telegraphy line and his workers laugh and say the son just kind of came along with the money. 

The next day Blake shows up in a fancy outfit.  He receives some teasing for this.  Homer decides the guy's a real tenderfoot, and picks out the meanest horse in the stables for Blake to ride.  When Blake gets atop the horse, it immediately tries to buck him off.  The horse kind of goes crazy and bucks all the way from the maintenance area to the main street of town.  The horse takes Blake into one door of the local saloon and then out the second door.  But Blake stays on the horse and rides him all the way back to Homer and company. 

At night Blake comes into the telegraph office to talk to Sue.  Sue introduces Blake to Shaw who is already siting in a chair just beyond Blake's vision.  Blake says he better get moving along.  He says he only wanted to wish Sue an early happy 4th of July.  Actually Shaw leaves with Blake.  Blake tells Shaw that the joke on him with the horse did not work because he has been riding horses before he could walk.  The men separate once outside and go in opposite directions.  After awhile Shaw starts to retrace his steps back to Sue.  When he gets to the telegraph office, there to meet him is Blake.  Both men have a good laugh and decide to walk in the same direction away from Sue.

At the 4th of July celebration the Territorial Governor talks about the great importance of the telegraph for the nation.  Creighton gets up next and reads a letter he just received from Abraham Lincoln.   Lincoln emphasizes in the letter that it is imperative that the union have a quick connection with the west.  After all, the Civil War now rages in the United States.     

The next morning the men and wagons of Western Union move out.  They move along a dirt road and put up the telegraph poles and wires as they move westward.  Sue has ridden out to the work site to see how much progress the men have made.  Ed is not happy that she came out.  They say goodbye to each other.  Ed leaves.  Sue stays stationary and Blake and Shaw come up to her on horseback.  They only have a little time so the conversation is a hello and goodbye basically. 

The road is a rough one and the cook really gets jostled sitting in the back of the wagon. Herman keeps cutting his fingers and he has the fingers of one hand all wrapped up with gauze because of the many cuts he has sustained peeling potatoes during the journey. 

At night Ed tells the men that they have made eleven miles in two days and that's good, but they will have to do a bit better tomorrow.  Shaw sneaks out of camp and rides all the way back to Omaha to see Sue.  But this time it's Shaw's turn to be surprised because Blake has already arrived and sits in the tucked-away chair.  This time all three members of the triangle have a good laugh. 

One of the men watching the cattle comes in badly wounded.  He says the Indians got the cattle and killed a co-worker named Frank.  Doc Murdoch says the man has been shot through his body.  He also says he will patch up the man, but the wounded man dies on the operating table. 

Shaw tell Creighton that this is strange.  It's Pawnee country and Pawnee don't kill cattle unless there's no buffalo.  He tells the boss that he is going out by himself to check on the situation.  Blake wants to go with Shaw, but Shaw says he won't take a tenderfoot on this trip. 

The next morning Shaw finds the cattle.  A little later he finds the Indians, except that they are not real Indians, but white men dressed as Indians.  In fact, it's Shaw's old bank robbing gang.  Vance says hello to Jack, the leader of the gang now.  He tells Jack that he came for those cattle the gang rustled.  Jack denies that they are cattle rustlers, but rather are guerilla raiders under orders from the Confederate Gen. Mosby.  Jack reminds Vance that he comes from Missouri "just like me".  The rustler says that they make money and they fight the Yankees.  Jack wants Vance to join them, but Vance refuses.  Jack lets him go. 

Because there are no cattle, the cook has to kill a donkey for meat for the men.  Shaw returns and tells Creighton that up the river some 20 miles there is a couple hundred Dakota Indians.  Since the cattle are his responsibility and he lost them, Shaw says he will quit and clear off.  The boss tells him no. 

Sue arrives at the station where the telegraph crew is staying.  She tells her brother that she is going to be his new telegraph operator.  Ed figures that this is just some more of the doings of that dude Blake and tells Sue that she is going to go back on the next stage.  Furthermore, Shaw will be the one to stay with Sue until the stage arrives, while Blake will accompany the rest of the workers headed out for their stations.  Ed tells Sue that they will be in Salt Lake City soon.   He leaves.

While waiting for the stage, Shaw tells Sue:  "I should have met you a couple of years ago.  Since then, I've made some mistakes."  Sue replies:  "Mistakes can be corrected."  Shaw responds:  "Not always."  The stage arrives and Sue gets on the stagecoach.  The cook tries to sneak on the stagecoach, but the scalped co-worker is there to stop him.  Shaw says goodbye to Sue saying they will meet again in Salt Lake City.  Sue gives him her locket so he will remember her.  The stagecoach moves out.   

Blake, Shaw and some others are out surveying the land for the places to put the telegraph poles.  Through his surveying instrument, Blake sees some Indians headed their way.  He shows Shaw and Shaw tells the men to mount their horses and go warn the others.  The men move out to tell the others.  They reach Homer Kettle and his crew.  Homer tells Blake that it would be faster to telegraph the main camp rather than race a horse there.  Blake agrees and Homer shimmies up a pole to connect the wires to the telegraph clacker. 

Ed receives the telegraph message and tells his men that Indians are attacking the front crews.  The men rush to get on their horses and wagons and head out to the front of the line to rescue their co-workers.  Shaw, perhaps thinking the Indians are really the white fellows, tells his men that there will be no shooting.  He assures his men that the oncoming Indians will stop.  The Indians arrive and they are real Indians this time.  The two Indians who step forward to look for firewater are already drunk.  Shaw tells them they have no liquor.  So one of the Indians decides to take the pretty survey instrument as good medicine.  Shaw takes it from him saying:  "Can't have!"  The men struggle over the instrument and the Indian is knocked down.  He grabs his knife and gets up to attack Shaw.  Shaw tells Blake not to shoot, but Blake shoots the Indian.

Just as things are coming to a head, the Indians see the Western Union reinforcements arriving.  They turn their horses around and leave quickly.  A signal comes in that the main camp is being attacked by Indian raiders.   Blake looks up at the telegraph pole where he last saw Homer.  Homer hangs backwards, held up by the  belt around him and the pole.  An arrow sticks out of his back.  

The main camp suffers a number of dead and lots of damage.  The cook hides in his wagon.  After the Indians leave, they discover that the Indians are actually white men.  The doc tries to save a badly wounded "Indian" but the prisoner dies while doc is sewing him up.  Now the boss is suspicious of Shaw.  He asks Shaw if he is really sure that those Dakota Indians were real or just white men dress as Indians?  Shaw lies and says he's sure.  Creighton says that the white men must have got the real Indians drunk and had them attack the front of the working line as a diversion so the whites could hit the main Western Union encampment.  

Blake tells the boss how strange Shaw was acting toward the Indians.  He says it's as if Shaw was encouraging another Indian attack. 

Blake, Shaw and Creighton go into the local town.  There they see Jack Slade by a coral of Western Union horses.  Creighton tells Slade that the horses belong to Western Union and Slade replies that he better not be accusing him of being a horse thief.  He says he got the horses from the Indians.  Shaw says that they better do business with Slade, since there is no other alternative.  Creighton reluctantly agrees.  Creighton is a little suspicious of the fact that Slade and Shaw seem to know each other. 

The three Western Union men go into the saloon to get the bill of sale from Jack and to deliver a check for $5,000 dollars to Slade.  Jack says he will sell them some cattle too, but Creighton says he's only doing business with Slade just this once.  While still in town, the three men are approached by Captain Harlow of the cavalry out of Fort Laramie.  He says that Chief Spotted Horse of the Ogallala Sioux say the men cannot run their telegraph through Ogallala land anymore because one of the braves was killed by the whites.  Creighton says they have to keep pushing the line through.  He adds that the three men will go unarmed into Sioux territory to talk with the chief. 

The three men travel in a wagon out to the end of the line.  The chief and all his warriors are there waiting for them.  Shaw speaks with the chief telling him that the telegraph must go through.  The chief says that the singing wire is bad medicine.  Creighton comes up with a scheme to convince the Sioux that the wire is bad medicine for the Indians, but good medicine for the whites.  He has the chief send ten of his toughest braves over to him.  Meanwhile, Blake pours a small barrel of water over the ground.  Shaw holds the wire to demonstrate that it does nothing bad to him.  Now it's the turn of the ten braves to grab the wire.  They do so and Blake turns on the electricity.  They all receive terrific shocks and jump around the place.  Creighton now tells Blake to cut off the electricity and Blake complies.  Now the chief says that the whites can go with their wire and can also go in peace.  On their way back, the three men have a good laugh as they all pull out the hidden pistols they had stuck inside their clothes to use in an emergency. 

Back in camp, Creighton says he has some good news for a change.  They are on the last leg of their job.  Moreover, when they get into Salt Lake City, everyone will receive two months additional pay.  Up from the men goes a lot of hooting and hollering. 

At night Shaw is told by one of the bad guys that Jack has been plugged in the stomach by another man and wants to see Shaw.  Shaw goes with the fellow.  As they get near their destination, the three henchmen of Jack Slade jump Shaw and take him prisoner.  Jack tells Shaw that tonight they are going to burn out Western Union and he wants to know if Shaw will join them.  Shaw just gives Jack some advice.  Leave a big organization like Western Union alone or Jack will end up hanged.  This does not phase Jack.  Is Shaw with them or not?  Shaw finally says he will go with them on one condition:  that Jack will go back to Missouri with him to join Gen. Mosby and be real guerillas for the South.  Jack rejects this idea and has Shaw tied up.  The men take off and leave Shaw behind near the campfire.  As soon as the others are gone, Shaw starts to burn his ropes off.   

Back at camp, Blake tells Creighton that he saw Shaw leave camp an hour ago.  Creighton doesn't say anything in reply.

Shaw is able to free himself of the ropes and now starts riding to the Western Union camp, but the gang is already pouring coal oil all around the outskirts of the Western Union camp.  As soon as that task if finished, they light the woods on fire.  It does not take too long before some Western Union man screams:  "Fire!  Fire!"  Creighton starts giving orders to take the horses and wagons down to the nearby lake.  Many of the wagons catch on fire while heading for the lake. 

Blake finds one of the empty coal oil bottles and figures this is a case of arson.  He then rushes to get a wagon.  He drives it into the late.  Just about that time Shaw arrives.  Blake is not happy to see him.  Shaw gets right to work saving people. 

In the morning there are only a few wagons saved.  The doctor bandages the burnt hands of the men.  Creighton comes up to Shaw and says he wants to speak to him in his tent.  When Shaw arrives, Creighton shows him a coal oil bottle and asks if Shaw has seen one of these before?  Shaw says no.  The boss now says:  "I was wrong about you. . . . Your absence last night is something I won't put up with.  Pack up your things and get out!"

Shaw starts to leave, but once again his shadow Blake is there.  Shaw asks him to tell Creighton that Jack Slade is his brother and that the gang won't bother him again.  Blake is shocked about Shaw's brother being Jack Slade. 

The gang is in the barber shop.  One of the gang comes in to warn Jack that Vance is coming.  Jack puts his pistol in his lap underneath the barber's sheet.  One henchman gets behind a curtain and the two other wait on the shop floor.  Shaw comes in.  Jack asks him if he has come to join them.  No.  In fact, Shaw says:  "It's got to be you or me.  Get up!"  Jack shoots through the barber's sheet and hits his brother in the left arm.  Now a firefight develops with all the guns going off.  Shaw shoots the man behind the curtain and he falls dead.  Then he kills one of the gang members firing from behind a stove.  He now kills the last of the three henchmen. 

Jack shoots through window and hits his brother, killing him.  He then goes outside to make sure that Shaw is dead.  He's dead.  Now Jack sees Blake walking toward him.  He fires at Blake but misses him.  Blake takes cover and returns fire.  Jack wounds Blake in the right shoulder.  Blake starts to fire back again, but his pistol just goes click, click.  Jack Slade takes careful aim to finish off Blake, but suddenly he keels over dead.  Blake goes to check on Shaw, but he's already dead.  Looking through Shaw's pockets, Blake finds the locket that Sue gave Shaw.  He realizes that Sue loved Shaw and not him. 

There is a celebration of the completion of the cross-country telegraph with lots of music and hollering.  Sue says to her brother:  "I wish Shaw could hear it."  Ed tells Sue:   "It's a long way from Salt Lake City to Boot Hill in Elkville, but I think he can hear it."


Good movie, but the story is fictional.  The story is rather run of the mill, but one does get some insight into the difficulties of completing a a transcontinental telegraph line. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


1844 (May 24)  --  Samuel Morse demonstrates the first experimental telegraph line between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.

In the 1850s there were lines established in the East and in the West, but there was no connection between the two coasts.

1859  --  the U.S. Post Office in California is authorized to spend $6,000 per year to build and maintain and overland telegraph line. 

1860  --  the U.S. Post Office is authorized to spend $40,000 per year to build and maintain an overland telegraph line.

The federal contract is awarded to Hiram Sibley, the president of the Western Union Company.  He forms a consortium between Western Union and the telegraph companies in California to construct the overland telegraph. 

The new Overland Telegraph Company of California builds the telegraph line eastward starting at Carson City.  The line goes through Nevada and Utah.

Sibley forms the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska and starts building the line westward from Omaha, following the eastern portion of the Oregon Trail.  The two lines would meet in Salt Lake City.

1861 (second half)  --  construction proceeds during this period.  There is a constant shortage of telegraph poles on the plains of the Midwest and the deserts of the Great Basin. 

1861 (October 18)  --  the line from Omaha reaches Salt Lake City.

1861 (October 24)  --  the line from Carson City reaches Salt Lake City.

1869  --  the overland telegraph line is replaced by a multi-line telegraph that went alongside the route of the Transcontinental Railroad. 



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