It’s a battle between two railroads. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific are in a race to see which can be the first to reach Ogden, Utah.
If the Central Pacific succeeds, bank president Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) stands to make a whole lot of money… so, naturally, he hires some help to make that outcome a reality. Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy), a gambler, is ordered by Asa to do whatever he can to sabotage the Union Pacific.
Three years into the Union Pacific’s railroad-building project, Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) is hired to bring a sense of law and order to the operation. Campeau has, with the help of Jeff’s old friend Dick Allen (Robert Preston), brought alcohol and gambling to the railroad, creating chaos.
As Jeff attempts to create a more efficient and clean environment for the Union Pacific’s “hell on wheels,” he finds himself caught in a rivalry with Dick Allen over the affections of the engineer’s daughter, Mollie (Barbara Stanwyck).
“The legend of Union Pacific is the drama of a nation, young, tough, prodigal and invincible, conquering with an iron highroad the endless reaches of the West. For the West is America’s empire, and only yesterday Union Pacific was the West.”
Union Pacific was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, from a screenplay by Walter De Leon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jesse Lasky, Jr. Further writing credits are given to Ernest Haycox for the story, and Jack Cunningham for adapting it.
Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck are always fun to watch together. Here, they find themselves as two-thirds of a love triangle. Their meet-cute has him spinning her on a train’s brake wheel… and her slapping him as she spins. Clearly, there’s going to be some tension here!
But romantic tension isn’t all there is, as the race to Ogden between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail companies pushes on. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes scheming and McCrea’s Jeff finds himself butting heads with a lot of people, particularly the gamblers making a traveling home for themselves among the builders of the Union Pacific.
The danger and debauchery of railroad towns is made clear both by the script and the convincing performances. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, in which an Irish railroad man dies after a gambling dispute, Mollie says, “A lad lies murdered, and nothing will be done about it.”
These more serious moments, countered by the lighter (but equally thrilling) romantic triangle, make for a perfect mix of railroad drama and romantic dramedy. There is a climactic confrontation scene taking place in Mollie’s train car about half-way through the film which really showcases the success of both dramas. Tensions come to a head between Jeff and Dick over Mollie and over Dick’s involvement in Campeau’s scheme, all at once.
Ms. Stanwyck, for her part, gives an energetic and engaging performance… complete with an attempt at an Irish accent! The accent isn’t totally successful, but she does well in her role otherwise, bringing the character to life with plenty of spunk.
The well-crafted and well-performed story is accompanied by nicely staged action sequences and wonderful cinematography, especially those scenes involving the train and railroad operations themselves. There are not one, but two train crash scenes which are very effectively terrifying!
Among the many wonderful films of 1939, Union Pacific is often lost in the shuffle, but it’s well worth watching. Stanwyck fans will enjoy her turn as a railroad-adventuring woman, but the film is also just generally well-made, with plenty of drama and tension to keep the viewer engaged.