Review: DeMille Tampers with History in 'Union Pacific'

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 16, 2021

Review: DeMille Tampers with History in 'Union Pacific'

Cecil B. DeMille rewrites history again with 1939's absorbing, yet faulty, "Union Pacific," where the building of the railroad that joins United States' East to West seems to save the nation. And, of course, it's the little people who are the heroes, while the wealthy bankers and politicos are the villains. DeMille also gets away with blending a host of genres in this action-packed western, tossing in a romantic triangle as well as high-end comedy — some of it inappropriate even for its time! And yet, it mostly works, because of the appeal of the three leads, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Robert Preston (who often appear to be in different movies, but, strangely, blends well.)

The film opens at the end of the Civil War with the struggle to make Lincoln's transcontinental railroad bill (from Omaha to California) a reality. Saboteurs abound, chief among them are Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy), Jack Cordray (a young and nasty Anthony Quinn), and Dick Allen (Preston). Of course, they're just mercenaries working for a wealthy banker. Enter Jeff Butler (McCrea) to try and keep order in a lawless time and make sure the Union Pacific construction goes ahead as planned. But a love triangle develops when Jeff and Dick (who go way back) vie for the love of Mollie Monahan (Stanwyck), the daughter of the engineer.

Oscar-nominated for Best Special Effects, "Union Pacific" contains a few thrilling sequences including a train wreck and a robbery. An Indian battle comes across fairly silly, since often it appears that DeMille simply directed the Native Americans to simply run around and wreak havoc. Other moments involving Native Americans in a comic vein are tasteless.

As alluded to above, the film's tone is all over the place. Preston is in a comedy and delivers a hilarious performance. McCrea is in an action-drama and is excellent. Stanwyck, struggling with her Irish accent, enchants us since she's in a romantic fable and is the only one roping the other two into her world.

And there is more than a wee bit of homoerotic tension between McCrea and Preston. Certain smiles and glances can't be overlooked. One gets the feeling that when they were younger and fighting side by side... well, boys will do boys...

I must mention Lynne Overman and Akim Tamiroff, who play henchmen the likes of which I have not seen onscreen. Suffice to say, I want these two protecting me!

The Blu-ray visual transfer shows some marks, but otherwise looks good. The sound is clear. The audio commentary by film historians Dr. Eloise Ross and Paul Anthony Nelson provide some very interesting facts.

DeMille's conservative lean too often mars his movies' endings. Here, the oddball humor in the last moments overwhelms even the most right-wing notions, and one is left with the sense of lawlessness running the land well into the future. And beyond.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historians Dr. Eloise Ross and Paul Anthony Nelson

  • Theatrical Trailer

    "Union Pacific" is currently available on Blu-ray.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.