#7 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
If someone had told me that this was a lost John Ford film, I’d be inclined to believe them. Made in the wake of Stagecoach‘s financial success, Lang films like Ford (not completely, but the influence is there), the story of male camaraderie is something that would fit Ford’s body of work more easily than Lang’s, and there’s a certain metaphor for the creation of a nation in microcosm like The Iron Horse, Drums Along the Mohawk, or Wagon Master. I can see Lang’s familiar sense of justice as well, but it’s very much a minor part of the overall story. On a certain level, this could be Lang at some of his lowest professionally, forced to push aside as much of himself as possible as he can in favor of a type of film that the studio wanted, but even with that in mind, this is a surprisingly touching success, sneaky in its effect, mostly apparent in it final moments.
The film begins with a prologue where Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) rides deep into the desert countryside of the American west, obviously trying to escape pursuing law, when he comes across the wounded Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger), a representative and surveyor for the nascent Western Union company. Shaw takes pity before stealing his horse by fixing him up a bit and transporting him to safety. A year later, Creighton returns to the area to start work on the transcontinental telegraph at the beginning of the Civil War. He discovers that the local office has hired Shaw, though they make sure that they don’t make it obvious that they know each other to the rest of the world. An eastern man, Richard Blake (Robert Young), shows up as the son of a financier, sent to make a man out of him. After a scene showing him mastering a bucking horse, showing that he may be inexperienced at dressing the part but not so when it comes to horses, the male bonding begins, undone a bit by the presence of Creighton’s sister, Sue (Virginia Gilmore). A small love triangle forms as the two vie for her affections, unresolved by the time the whole party moves out.
The bulk of the film is the challenges of digging post holes, putting up posts, and wiring them against threats natural and human. The human threat forms around Shaw’s old outlaw buddies led by Jack Slade (Barton MacLane). Shaw catches them after they steal the wagon train’s cattle, but he lets them go without a shot, raising a question of why he just won’t give them up. Things escalate with the arrival of the drunk son of an Indian chief that turns into a distraction where their horses are stolen, forcing Creighton to buy back his own horses from Slade the next town over.
This mostly plays out like a series of events for most of the film, but something sneaky is going on just beneath the surface. Shaw and Blake have been having their little tug of war around Sue, laughing at their own misfortunes along the way and gaining some real friendship between them. However, the increasing occurrences of bad things going on with Shaw as lead scout, especially his tale of not finding the cattle, arouse suspicion. Blake, despite their budding friendship, begins to suspect Shaw of not being on their side, a dangerous prospect in such a dangerous place.
Then we get our most Fritz Lang sequence where Shaw gets captured by Slade, and Slade burns the forest around which the Western Union team is camped. Everything burns. It’s an exciting sequence that involves Shaw trying to get back, the fire consuming everything, and the people trying to get out alive. It’s the final straw between Creighton and Shaw. Shaw reveals the hidden connection between him and Slade, and Shaw goes out to finish it once and for all. Blake follows, and the resolution of the ensuing shootout is surprisingly touching, bringing in the love triangle in an unexpected way. It’s these final moments that push the film up a notch, creating a denouement that’s far more touching than the movie seemed capable of delivering.
There’s more John Ford-like elements to the film as well. Ford’s well-known love of interesting side-characters feels present here, especially around the cook Cookie (Slim Summerville), an older man who doesn’t want anything to do with the danger of the trip but ends up going anyway. He’s the main source of comedic relief, and his involvement is intelligently sprinkled throughout, never becoming the main focus but always just allowing for a brief tension relief and laugh. Visually, Lang is obviously mimicking Ford as well, using the huge vistas of places like House Rock Canyon in Arizona like Ford would use Monument Valley, but he doesn’t completely disappear into Ford’s technique. Lang brings his powerful use of shadows to bear here in ways that Ford never tried, especially some striking compositions of Randolph Scott in a river, ensuring that Lang doesn’t devolve into mere mimicry.
Well produced, well directed, and surprisingly affecting in its final moments, Western Union may be Fritz Lang reacting to his financial disappointments and John Ford’s financial successes, but he does it quite well. He doesn’t make it his own, twisting and turning the script to fit his own thematic obsessions, but he does make the best of what he has.