|Western Union (1941)
Run time: 95 min
Genres: History | Western
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Zane Grey, Robert Carson
Stars: Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger
It’s 1861 and two outlaw brothers lock horns when one gives up his criminal ways and goes to work for Western Union, laying the first transcontinental lines in Omaha and Salt Lake City. A big-scale western in gorgeous Technicolor.
Release Date: 21 February 1941 (USA)
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Blazing early technicolor is an awesome ingredient of this fast-moving Fritz Lang western featuring Robert Young and Randolph Scott in one of their best cowboy epics. Basically the story of their rivalry for the affections of a girl (Virginia Gilmore), as well as a story of how the telegraph brought communication to the wilderness. Some inept comedy is the only spoiler in an otherwise straightforward telling of an interesting tale. Randolph Scott is excellent as the man with a past hired to protect Western Union from Indian attacks. Robert Young is perfect as the dapper surveyor from back East. This must have been great "Saturday afternoon at the Bijou" sort of fare for kids and the elders who simply wanted to enjoy a good old shoot ’em up western with cowboys and Indians. It’s still enjoyable on that level–and you’ll see some of the best early technicolor ever captured on film. Deserves more recognition as one of the best of its kind.
I doubt if the real story of the development of Western Union would ever have gained a real audience. Instead of talking about the building of the telegraph system out west, it was the story of board rooms, dominated by one of the most interesting (and disliked) of the great "Robber Barons": Jay Gould. Gould picked up the struggling company and turned it into a communication giant – and part of his attempt at a national railway system to rival Vanderbilt's. But this, while interesting, is not as exciting as the story of the laying of the telegraph lines themselves. At least, that is how audiences would see it. Jay Gould died in 1892. Had he lived into the modern era, and invested in Hollywood, he probably would have agreed to that assessment too.
The film deals with how the laying of the telegraph system is endangered by Indians, spurred on by one Jack Slade (Barton MacLane). Slade, a desperado, is not happy with the development of a communication system that will certainly put a crimp in his abilities to evade the police in the territories. He is confronted by the man in charge of the laying of the telegraph wires, Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger), Creighton's associate Richard Blake (Robert Young), and a quasi-lawman Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott), who is Slade's brother. Blake, an Easterner with little understanding of the West, is romancing Creighton's sister Sue (Virginia Gilmore), but finds it hard to get used to his new surroundings. But he does become a close friend of Shaw, especially in trying to confront Slade.
Slade was a real Western criminal, by the way, and the subject of a section of Mark Twain's ROUGHING IT. He was hanged in the 1870s. But he did not have any involvement in stirring up Indians against railroads or telegraph companies. However, MacLane makes him a memorably evil, and totally vicious type. His killing of one of the major characters is done suddenly and from behind – and he views the corpse as though he has just got rid of an annoyance. But Lang is responsible for that, as well as other touches. Look at the sequence with Chill Wills, where he is on a telegraph pole repairing it. He spits tobacco juice several times while talking to Young, who gets a little splattered. Then there is an Indian attack which we watch from the ground level. At the conclusion, Young suddenly gets splattered again, but it's not brown but red that covers him. He looks up at the pole's top, and there is Wills with an Indian arrow through him.
It is an exciting film to watch, and well worth catching.
"Western Union" is something of a forgotten classic western! Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact of its unavailability on DVD in the United States. However, all is not lost as it has now appeared on Region 2 in England. This – being a blessing in some ways – is not only incongruous but totally ironic when one considers that a movie depicting the founding and establishment of such a uniquely American organization as The Western Union Telegraph Company is without a Region 1 release. It beggars belief! It simply doesn't make sense!
Produced by Fox in 1941 "Western Union" was directed by Fritz Lang. This was only the second occasion the great German director undertook to direct a western! He had done an excellent job the year before with Fox's "The Return Of Frank James" and would have only one more western outing in 1952 with the splendid "Rancho Notorious". Lang was no Ford or Hawks but with "Western Union" he turned in a fine solid western that holds up very well. Beautifully photographed in early three strip Technicolor by Edward Cronjager it boasted a good cast headed by Robert Young, Randolph Scott and Dean Jagger. The female lead is taken by Virginia Gilmore who really has little to do in the picture. An actress who never made anything of her career. Her presence here is merely cosmetic.
It is curious that Robert Young has top billing over Scott! It is clearly Scott's picture from the very beginning when we first see him in the film's terrific opening scene being chased by a posse across the plains. Young doesn't have much to do throughout the movie and seems out of place in a western. He just looks plain silly going up against Barton McLane in a gunfight! An actor who never really distinguished himself – except perhaps with "Crossfire" (1947)- Young appeared in a string of forgettable romantic comedies in the forties and fifties culminating with his greatest success when for seven years he was TV's "Marcus Welby MD" in the seventies. He died in 1998 at the age of 91.
"Western Union" recounts the connection by telegraph wire of Omaha and Salt Lake City. Scott plays a reformed outlaw hired by Western Union boss Dean Jagger to protect the line from marauding Sioux and to also take on McLane and his gang who are trying to destroy the line for their own devious ends. Robert Young is the young engineer from back east who joins the company and vies with Scott for the affections of Miss Gilmore. Some comic relief is provided by – and irritatingly so some would say – by Slim Summerville and John Carradine turns up in a meager role as the company doctor.
Altogether though a spanking good western, albeit on Region 2, but in sparkling good quality that fans will be delighted with. My only crib is that there are no extras, not even a trailer and that terrible cover with those dull graphics. UGH!
Footnote: Interestingly the associate producer on "Western Union" was Harry Joe Brown who later with Randolph Scott would create a partnership that would produce some of Scott's finest westerns in the fifties.
While it doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of ‘Rancho Notorious’, Lang’s Western is still an excellent example of his art within formulaic genres. Given his career history until he reached America in studio bound, mono films, it is a surprise that his Westerns were so successful in conventional terms. But they were. Even the least remarkable, ‘The Return of Frank James’ is worth a viewing. Like that film, here too the colour cinematography is glorious, the leads sympathetic, the story exciting and involving.
Many of Lang’s characteristic themes are here: fate, guilt/innocence, crime, and cruelty amongst them. Western fans will relish the strong part given to veteran heavy Barton MacLane as Scott’s brother Jack Slade (even though the resemblance is hardly striking) – the sneering MacLane’s face in close up, daubed in war paint, is a real sight to behold, a highlight of the film..
More unusually for Lang is the use of a comic sub plot, as Herman the cook struggles against the vicissitudes of his employment. Even today this tale of woe remains amusing making one regret, perhaps, that the director didn’t go down this route more often. Lightly handled, too, is the romance triangle. Scott and Young make an excellent pairing in this context, and again the scenes are lightly amusing. This sort of play is more reminiscent of another German emigre, Lubitsch, than the more severe Lang.
The most shocking incident in the film is undoubtedly the death of Vince Shaw at the hands of his brother. Even those, like myself, who have seen the film several times, still hope against memory that in fact Jack Slade meets his deserved end at the receiving end of his brother’s bullets. To see Scott die on screen is profoundly upsettling, even though his demise is (as the Hollywood code demanded) avenged shortly afterwards by the grim Blake. But for long seconds, as the burly villain prods Scott’s body, as Scott’s flaxen hair flaps lifelessly, we feel that the world is really out of joint.
This death, both inevitable and feared, is a typical Lang touch – as Scott’s character has been ultimately fighting against fate through the film. In fact much of the time we have been aware of a paradox, one which is at the heart of the story: Scott/Shaw is presented to us as a man of action and mystery. In fact his relationship to his brother paralyses him in every sphere, except that of love. The hand that grips around Sue’s locket can easily remind one of the destiny that closes on men. Ultimately Vince Shaw is as much trapped in a hostile universe as is Herman the Cook, but his fall is much the greater.