Western Union—Randolph Scott, Robert Young, Dean Jagger, Barton MacLane, Virginia Gilmore, Chill Wills (1941; Dir: Fritz Lang)
Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott; note that he also played a character named Vance in the previous year’s Virginia City) is introduced as he’s apparently trying to get away from a posse. In doing so, he saves a Western Union surveyor/chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger, with a hairpiece), then escapes. Shaw seems decent and more than normally competent, but he has an undefined relationship with Jack Slade (Barton MacLane) and his outlaw gang.
When the telegraph line gets serious about building between Omaha and Salt Lake (1861, apparently), Creighton gives Shaw a job as his chief scout. The Oglala Sioux, through whose territory the line must go, present a problem, and Slade’s gang seems involved with them, too. Shaw develops a romantic interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), although Harvard-educated engineer Richard Blake (Robert Young) is also interested. For a tenderfoot, Blake does pretty well, and Shaw’s situation becomes more complicated as Slade’s depredations against Western Union increase. Slade, from Missouri, fancies himself helping the Confederate cause by stopping the transcontinental telegraph line. Shaw loses Creighton’s trust.
Finally, Shaw goes to town to have it out with Slade, who turns out to be his brother. Although his hands are burned, he gets several of Slade’s henchmen and wounds Slade, but Slade gets him. Blake finishes off Slade, although wounded himself. Shaw was so compromised he probably had to die to resolve matters, but it’s a bittersweet and vaguely unsatisfying ending.
Scott seems to have more dramatic heft than Young, who is featured more prominently on many of the posters. John Carradine plays the company doctor; Chill Wills is a lineman; there’s broad comic relief in minor characters (e.g., Herman the cook, played by Slim Summerville) which doesn’t wear all that well. In color (meaning a big budget for 1941); directed by Fritz Lang; based on a story by Zane Grey. Compare it with another technological western, Cecil DeMille’s Union Pacific, released two years earlier. In all, this is much better than average for its time, and better than much of Scott’s work in westerns during the late 1940s and 1950s up until his collaboration with Budd Boetticher. This is more straightforward than Rancho Notorious (1952), the last western directed by Fritz Lang. The producer was Harry Joe Brown; fifteen years later he and Scott would form the Ranown production company for the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns.
There was a real western gunman Jack Slade, involved in a famous gunfight at Julesburg, eventually killed by Montana vigilantes in the early 1860s and mentioned in Mark Twain’s Roughing It. But this character doesn’t bear much resemblance to the historical Slade and is much more obviously an outlaw.