Western Union (1941): Fritz Lang’s Technicolor Western, Starring Robert Young, Randolph Scott, and Dean Jagger

Fritz Lang directed Western Union, a spectacular Technicolor movie shot on location in Arizona and Utah, starring Robert Young, Randolph Scott, and Dean Jagger.

The fictionalized tale, set in 1861, concerns a reformed outlaw who tries to reform by joining the team wiring the Great Plains for telegraph service.

Conflicts arise between the man and his former gang, and between the team stringing the wires and the Native Americans through whose land is used for the new lines.

Only loosely based on Zane Grey’s novel, “Western Union,” Robert Carson’s scenario fictionalized the real Edward Creighton, who was known for his honest treatment of the tribes, and gained their trust and cooperation.

While surveying a telegraph line, Western Union engineer Edward Creighton (Jagger) is accidentally injured, and then found by Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott), an outlaw on the run. Forced to travel on foot, Shaw considers stealing Creighton’s horse, but he changes his mind and takes the man with him.

After his recovery, Creighton returns to Nebraska and plans the construction of a telegraph line from Omaha to Utah. Facing opposition from Confederate soldiers, Indians, and outlaws, Creighton elicits the help of sister Sue (Virginia Gilmore), foreman Pat Grogan (Minor Watson), and assistant Homer Kettle (Chill Wills).

Shaw arrives at Creighton’s Western Union office looking for honest work and is hired as a scout by Grogan who is unaware of his criminal past. Creighton allows him to stay despite suspicions. Creighton also hires tenderfoot Richard Blake (Robert Young), a Harvard-educated engineer as a favor to Blake’s father.

Shaw and Blake vie for Sue’s attention, but their romantic rivalry is cut short when construction of the telegraph line starts on July 4, 1861.

Unconvinced that Indians are to blame, Shaw follows the rustlers’ trail to the camp of Jack Slade, a former friend, whose gang committed the killing  disguised as Indians.

Slade reveals they are working for the Confederacy to disrupt Western Union because they believe the telegraph service will help the Union. Refusing to turn in his former friends, Shaw tells Creighton that some Dakota Indians stole the cattle; he suggests to simply replace the herd and avoid risking fight with the Indians.

Later on, confrontation takes place between men working on the line and some drunken Indians. When one Indians tries to steal equipment, a Blake shoots him, ignoring Shaw’s order to remain calm.

As the main camp is under attack by other Indians, the Western Union men rush back to help. At the main camp, Slade’s men, again disguised as Indians, steal the Western Union horses. The company discover the ruse when one of the wounded Indians turns out to be a white man. Forced to buy back their stolen horses from Slade, Creighton becomes suspicious of Shaw’s involvement, especially when he admits to knowing the gang.

The U.S. Army announces that the Indians have refused to allow the telegraph lines to go through their territory in response to Blake’s shooting the drunken Indian. Creighton, Shaw, and Blake try to convince Chief Spotted Horse to allow them to build the line through Indian territory, even though the man Blake wounded was Spotted Horse’s son.

Creighton persuades the Indians to allow them passage, and work continues until the company approaches Salt Lake City.

At the barber shop, Slade shoots Shaw, who fights back despite being wounded, killing some gang members before dying himself.  Blake continues the fight with Slade, who dies from his wounds. In the end, the Western Union line is completed with the workers celebration.

Lang balances well dialogue scenes with thrilling action set pieces, which benefit from the stunning exterior locations.

And he gets good performances from his trio of leads, all male.  Largely seen in B-movies, Randolph Scott looks more attractive than the usual and commands the screen as the scout. Dean Jagger, better known for secondary character roles, is well cast as a lead as the cool and determined chief engineer.  The always reliable Robert Young provides good company as the man from the East.

Credits:

Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Joe Brown
Screenplay by Robert Carson, based on Western Union by Zane Grey
Music by David Buttolph
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager, Allen M. Davey
Edited by Robert Bischoff
Produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date: February 21, 1941 (US)
Running time: 95 minutes

Cast
Robert Young as Richard Blake
Randolph Scott as Vance Shaw
Dean Jagger as Edward Creighton
Virginia Gilmore as Sue Creighton
John Carradine as Doc Murdoch
Barton MacLane as Jack Slade
Russell Hicks as Governor
Slim Summerville as Cookie
Chill Wills as Homer Kettle
Victor Kilian as Charlie
Minor Watson as Pat Grogan
George Chandler as Herb
Chief John Big Tree as Chief Spotted Horse
Chief Thundercloud as Indian leader
Dick Rich as Porky
Addison Richards as Capt. Harlow
Irving Bacon as Joe the Barber