Union Pacific (1939): DeMille’s Fictionalized Adventure, Starring Stanwyck and Joel McCrea

One of Cecil B. DeMilles best adventures and biggest blockbusters, Union Pacific, more or less covers the same historical period as John Fords “The Iron Horse,” though, as the historian William Everson had noted, it has a better script, perhaps due to its literary source, the novel “Trouble Shooters” by Ernest Haycox.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

Union Pacific
Union Pacific poster.jpg

Theatrical film poster

Released in 1939, this movie about American empire-building catered to the populace’s patriotic zeal. By the time it had played out its advance prestige dates and went into general release, WWII had broken out. Undoubtedly, the film’s box-office success was boosted by a wave of national feelings. Its climactic moment, promising blood and toil, with some kind of utopia “at the end of the tracks,” were both prophetic and topical.

In this highly fictionalized story, Joel McCrea builds the transcontinental railroad, while courting the spunky Irish woman, Molly Monahan (perfectly cast with Barbara Stanwyck, at a career peak). The villains are played by Paramount’s reliable pros, Brian Donlevy and Robert Preston.

In 1939, along with Ford’s “Stagecoach,” “Union Pacific” was an isolated film, too atypical of the Western genre to bring the West back to life, which would happen in the 1950s.

In one of the film’s outrageous scenes, Anthony Quinn gets an offer, “Five dollars if you get him on first shot. He then shoots innocent Indian, and McCrea beats the shooter. The response: What’s a dead Indian more or less? The army has been doing it for years.”

Production values, as in most of DeMille’s pictures, are good, and it’s noteworthy that DeMille shot his epic in black-and-white, while color was beginning to become the norm, as evident in Victor Fleming’s “Gone With the Wind,” which swept most of that year’s Oscars.

Speaking of “Gone With the Wind,” Clark Gable’s hero shares the same last name, Butler, as Joel McCrea’s.

Oscar Alert

Special Effects: Farciot Edouart and Gordon Jennings, photographic; Lorn Ryder, sound. However, the winner in that category was “The Rain Came,” whose special effects were supervised by Fred Sersen and E. H. Hansen.


Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck)
Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea)
Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff)
Dick Allen (Robert Preston)
Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy)
Leach Overmile (Lynne Overman)
Duke Ring (Robert Barrat)
Jack Cordray (Anthony Quinn)
General Casement (Stanley Ridges)
Asa M. Barrows (Henry Kolker)



Produced, directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, C. Gardener Sullivan, Jesse Lasky Jr., and Jack Cunningham, based on Ernest Haycox’s novel, Trouble Shooters
Camera: Victor Milner, Dewey Wrigley
Editor: Anne Bauchens
Music: George Antheil, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold
Art direction: Hans Dreier, Ronald Anderson
Costumes: Natalie Visart
Special Effects: See above

Running time: 135 Minutes

Release date: May 5, 1939