(director: Cecil B. DeMille; screenwriters: from a story by Ernest Haycox/Jack Cunningham/Walter DeLeon/C. Gardner Sullivan/Jesse Lasky Jr.; cinematographer: Victor Milner; editor: Anne Bauchens; music: Sigmund Krumgold/John Leipold; cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Mollie Monahan), Joel McCrea (Jeff Butler), Robert Preston (Dick Allen), Brian Donlevy (Sid Campeau), Henry Kolker (Barrows), Akim Tamiroff (Fiesta), Lynne Overman (Leach Overmile), Francis MacDonald (General Grenville Dodge), Sheila Darcy (Rose), Stanley Ridges (General Casement), Anthony Quinn (Jack Cordray), William Haade (Dusky Clayton), Joseph Crehan (Gene. Ulysses S. Grant), Indian Chief (Richard Robles), Paddy O’Rourke (Regis Toomey), J.M. Kerrigan (Monahan, train engineer), Willard Robertson (Oake Ames), Lon Chaney Jr. (Dollarhide, Campeau henchman), Robert Barrat (Duke Ring); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Cecil B. DeMille; Paramount; 1939)
“It has the grand sweep of a DeMille film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Cecil B. DeMille (“The Ten Commandments”/”Cleopatra”/”Samson and Delilah”) produces and directs this exciting action-packed epic nation-building Western that’s shot in black and white. It’s about building the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s that stretched from Omaha to California to unite the country. Since DeMille was taken ill during the production, much of the film was shot by James Hogan and Arthur Rossen. Nevertheless, it has the grand sweep of a DeMille film. The historical event is fictionalized by a melodramatic rivalry story over a competing railroad and a love triangle. The film owes a great debt to John Ford’s 1924 “The Iron Horse,” which covered the same tracks. It’s based on Ernest Haycox’s novel and written by Jack Cunningham, Walter DeLeon, Jesse Lasky Jr. and C. Gardner Sullivan.
The Union Pacific, financially backed by industrialist Ames, is granted permission by President Lincoln to build a railroad line that unites the country at Ogden, Utah to California. Unscrupulous Chicago banker Asa M. Barrows (Henry Kolker) backs the Central Pacific to get to Ogden first and win the contract, and he hires crooked St. Louis saloon keeper and gambler Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to distract the honest railroad workers with drink and gambling and to stir up trouble with Indians so they attack the railroad and further delay the UP. The idea is that Campeau and his likable partner Dick Allen (Robert Preston) will travel along with the workers as they lay track and ply them with free booze, whenever it’s needed to stall them. Three years later, in 1868, in Cheyenne, General Dodge (Francis MacDonald) and General Casement (Stanley Ridges), who run the UP, are fed up with all the delays and hire no-nonsense Civil War Captain Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), a trained engineer, to be the troubleshooter. He’s given two ornery bodyguards, the half-breed Mexican Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff) and Leach (Lynne Overman), to watch his back as he confronts Campeau and his goons. It turns out that Dick and Jeff are best friends from the war, but Dick refuses to give up his lucrative partnership with bad guy Campeau. Soon the army buddies find themselves rivals not only over the railroad but fighting for the affections of the pretty Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the feisty Irish brogue speaking post mistress for the railroad and the daughter of its train engineer (J. M. Kerrigan). After warning Campeau to stop the delays or else, Jeff makes peace with Chief Red Cloud, kills crooked card dealer Cordray (Anthony Quinn) after he killed an honest railroad worker (Regis Toomey) over a rigged poker hand, runs a bully named Duke Ring (Robert Barrat) out of town who killed the foreman and forces the workers to quit. Then to help the UP fulfill its promise, General Grant (Joseph Crehan, the actor made a career portraying Grant and this was the 41st time he wore those whiskers), gets Barrows to loan Ames a $1,000,000 for the UP to pay the workers who are beginning to rebel because they haven’t been paid in months. Campeau gets Dick to rob the train carrying the payroll, and Dick has the payroll sack with $200,000 but Jeff is in hot pursuit. Dick manages to hide it in Mollie’s mail car, and when Jeff comes after it Dick has called Campeau and his hired goon to help. Mollie fearing Jeff, the one her heart has gone out to, will be killed by the thugs, averts the gunplay by agreeing to marry Dick. The next day Mollie gets Jeff to return the money and agrees to marry him that night. Jeff destroys Campeau’s traveling saloon with a bunch of the Irish workers and gets Campeau to confess his and Dick’s part in the robbery and killing of a guard. Mollie helps her husband escape arrest, but the train that Dick, Mollie and Jeff are on is attacked by Indians. The survivors telegraph Cheyenne for help, and the troops come to the rescue. Dick escapes while Jeff tends to the wounded Mollie. The next step is to cross tracks built over snow, which is accomplished in time to get the UP to Ogden first. As the Golden Spike, in 1869, at Promontory Point, is driven into the rail by California’s Governor Stanford to finish uniting the country’s railroad from coast to coast, Dick takes a bullet fired by Campeau that was meant for Jeff, thus ending the blockbuster spectacle. It proves to be a breathtaking Western epic in the old-fashioned tradition that was a real crowd-pleaser. Of course, history tells us that the UP, treated so nobly here, was anything but progressive, but was part of a corrupt deal between greedy investors and Congress to pay for the private railroad with the public’s money. If you ignore that truth and look upon the reactionary DeMille’s film as just an enjoyable spectacle, then you will probably be pleased with it. Though I don’t blame others who take exception to such a Hollywood reworking of history.
REVIEWED ON 5/18/2008 GRADE: B