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The DVD Savant review of Cecil B. DeMille's tribute to the 19th-century railroad's frontier spirit is full of exaggerations about the triumphs and mistruths about backdoor dealings and cronyism around the building of the rail system that connected both coasts of the USA together. As it is with every major infrastructure deal in the old west (And in the new west if you think about it), some fat cats got their beaks wet and a lot of common folks (Especially if they were people of color) got screwed. This is my long-winded way of pointing out that if you dive into Union Pacific looking for a historical and levelheaded chronicle of how the titular railroad came to prominence by linking the two coasts together, you won't find it here.
What you will find is a rousing old-fashioned epic western full of aw-shucks heroes risking life and limb to expand the American frontier, wrapped tightly around a classic Hollywood love triangle between a neutral good lawman (Joel McCrea), a crook with a golden heart (Robert Preston), and a tough-as-nails daughter of a train engineer (Barbara Stanwyck, who once again delivers her unscrupulous charisma, even though her Irish accent is as solid as Orson Welles' in The Lady From Shanghai).
Preston, McCrea, and Stanwyck share a palpable chemistry, there are multiple spectacular set pieces full of hundreds of extras and horses, photographed through DeMille's exuberant and expensive wide shots. And those wanting to study miniature work of the era will get their kicks out of a massive avalanche scene that knocks out the train as it tries to make its way to the meeting point where east and west will come together.
The film contains a predictably bigoted and simplistic application of Native Americans (At Least in this case DeMille hired actual Navajo extras instead of grabbing a bunch of Sicilians in brownface), as expected from Westerns of the period, and the massive Asian community that mostly built the railroads is suspiciously missing. But again, don't get into Union Pacific for any sort of historical realism. It's good-ole jingoistic fluff, but adequately entertaining nevertheless.
Kino's 1080 transfer is clean and sharp, while also showing a healthy amount of grain. There are frequent blemishes and scratches on the transfer print, but they are mostly tiny enough to be ignored.
The DTS-HD mono track is 2.0, which creates the illusion of surround sound on a 5.1 system. The rousing score, unfortunately, made up of scratch tracks instead of original work, mixes well with the tinny but clean dialogue and sfx.
Commentary by Dr. Eloise Ross and Paul Anthony Nelson: The film scholars get into great details about the production while keeping their conversation loose and friendly. it's like hanging out with a couple of cinephiles.
We also get a Trailer.
Union Pacific isn't a massive classic the way some of DeMille's other epics were and is full of mistruths and exaggerations in order to propagate simple propaganda about the US frontier spirit. But the performances are emotionally engaging, and there are enough set-pieces to satisfy fans of 1930s westerns.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com