Tuesday 1 September 2020

Streaming on YouTube - Tom Ryan revives WESTERN UNION (Fritz Lang, USA, 1941)

Or Zane Grey’s Western Union, as the opening credits read. Clearly, as far as 20th Century-Fox was concerned, the foregrounding of the legendary writer’s name could only be a marketing plus. With the advantage of hindsight, though, the studio might have been better advised to settle for Fritz Lang’s Western Union. Or simply to leave well enough alone.

Intriguingly, though, citing George N. Fenin and William K. Everson’s The Westernas his source, Paul M. Jensen claims in his book on Fritz Lang (1)that Grey was never responsible for a novel of that name and that “it was especially written for the film and assigned Grey’s by-line”. 


If this is true, then whoever wrote the book has done a fine job of simulating Grey’s prose tics and plotting style and reproducing his thematic concerns: the recurrent deployment of the verb “ejaculates” as a synonym for “says” (slightly off-putting to a 21st-century reader); the ongoing attention to the details of the environment that render it a key character of the story (the prairie fire driven by a “norther”, the electrical storm and the buffalo stampede are especially powerful passages); the same kind of sentimental romantic affair that lies at the heart of his other tales of the Old West; the continuing reminders that the land being occupied by the pioneers travelling westward has been stolen from its original owners (2).


Lang himself offers a different account of the film’s origins. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book-length interview with him, he recalls that the film “was made after a book by Zane Grey”, adding that “nothing from it was used in the picture except the title” (3). The latter claim certainly isn’t true (for reasons I detail below), although his comments clearly contradict Jensen & co.’s proposition that the novel was somehow generated by the film and written to enhance its marketability. And an article on the TCM Movie Database website about the making of the film further suggests that Jensen & co. are wrong: “The book was published three days prior to the author's death of a heart attack on October 23, 1939,” it says. “Grey had discussed with actor Gary Cooper the idea of an independent production of Western Union (to be released by either United Artists or RKO), but it failed to materialize. At one point, Paramount Pictures was also interested in purchasing screen rights, but Fox ultimately won the property with a $25,000 offer.”


However, while the provenance of Fritz Lang’s Western Union might be a mildly interesting subject for discussion, the film itself turns out to be not especially distinguished. While Lang made a number of rightly celebrated classics of their kinds – including Metropolis (1927), Spione (1928), M(1931), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), You Only Live Once (1939), The Big Heat and Human Desire (both 1954) – Western Union is not among them. Nonetheless, any Fritz Lang film is worthy of attention. 


This one is visually evocative, boasting a strong cast and a terrific role for Randolph Scott. But its tale about the movement west of American civilization – the final sequence identifies the year as 1861 (the year the Civil War officially began, as well as the point at which the novel begins) – simply substitutes the laying of telegraph wire between Omaha and Salt Lake City on behalf of Western Union for other kinds of westward ventures, such as the cross-country wagon-train trek or the building of a railroad. And there’s little to indicate that Lang or his officially credited writer Robert Carson (Beau GesteA Star Is Born) were the slightest bit interested in this aspect of the material, although a sumptuous early montage celebrates the burgeoning township where the local branch of the Western Union company (to be precise, the Western Union Omaha Maintenance Division) runs its business. 


Randolph Scott, Western Union

Rather, the film’s primary attention is on the relationship between bank robber Vance Shaw (Scott) and surveyor Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger), the Western Union boss who becomes his friend. The two meet in the film’s opening sequence and their ongoing interactions lie at its emotional heart. Shaw is on the run from a posse after (we later learn) having robbed a bank with a gang which has headed off in a different direction. When his horse goes lame and he comes across a stranger (Creighton) at a waterhole, he decides to take his fellow traveller’s horse, only to have a change of heart when the man collapses. He goes to his aid, helping him to town, his choice laying the foundation for the bond between the men that remains throughout the film. “Me as Santa Claus,” he wryly muses to himself, walking alongside Creighton’s horse as the pair heads off together. 


That Creighton is a man of principle, someone always concerned to pay his debts, is initially established at the stagecoach office when he insists on paying the employees there for their assistance. And it’s further confirmed when he repays his debt to Shaw in the town by “not recognising” him and insisting that he keep his job as a scout looking after cattle for the company.


A recurring Lang theme is the way in which a chain of events is set in motion by specific choices made by the characters. A man-made destiny, if you like. Here, it’s the decision to help a wounded man simply because he’s wounded that becomes the moral prism through which we, and Creighton, view Shaw’s character.


The course Shaw’s life has taken, however, is more complicated than this. After an attraction develops between him and Creighton’s sister, Sue (Virginia Gilmore), he tells her he wishes he’d met her earlier because she might have been able to steer him away from mistakes that he’s made. “Mistakes can be corrected,” she tells him. “Not always” is his cryptic response. The exchange is bathed in a genuine sense of pathos, Shaw’s melancholy tone pointing to his appreciation of lost possibilities and making clear that he blames no-one but himself for them. His death in the film’s closing sequence is prefigured in this one.


Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, Robert Young,  Western Union

It’s this edge that makes Scott’s character here more nuanced than the ones he played so effortlessly in many other westerns (and that makes his Shaw an unnoted precursor to his Gil Westrum in Guns in the Afternoon). Shaw is the good-bad man, proud, decent and righteous, yet somehow on the wrong side of the law. He’s in sharp contrast to his fellow bank robber, Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), a no-good crook who lays siege to Western Union with its “Yankee wire”, fatuously pleading the case that “we’re soldiers fightin’ for the Confederacy”, and who Shaw eventually reveals is his brother.


He’s also in contrast to tenderfoot Richard Blake (Robert Young, who has lead billing). A Harvard-trained engineer, he’s come west at the command of his father who “thinks a job at Western Union will make a man of him”, and who has contributed to the cost of laying the telegraph wire. Creighton, the man who believes in paying his debts, has agreed to the deal, so Blake joins the team. 

Blake has brought a lot of knowledge with him – Morse code for one thing, an ability to ride a horse for another – but little experience. It’s that which makes him a very different kind of man from Shaw. He’s too quick to judge situations he doesn’t fully understand, whether it’s dealing with Indians who appear to be blocking the telegraphers’ path or understanding the moral underpinnings of Shaw’s commitment to Creighton. 


Instead of allowing Shaw to handle the situation with the Indians who are drunk (Slade’s doing!), Blake is too ready to pull his gun. The contrast between the two men couldn’t be sharper: Shaw not only knows they’re Paiute but even speaks their language. Then, when Blake foolishly uses his weapon, the consequence is a threat of all-out war. He and Shaw establish a kind of camaraderie in their wooing of Sue, but it’s not until the end that Blake comes to better understand what it is that makes Shaw tick. 


Western Union isn’t quite as blatant in its racism against Native Americans as some other Scott films, such as 1949’s Canadian Pacific, but it’s still lamentable. In one scene, a Western Union man kills an intruder in Indian dress, damaging his tomahawk in the process, only to discover that he’s a white man in disguise. “I wouldn’t have minded if it had just been an Indian,” he announces, a line the film invites us to see as funny.


The film’s Indians are depicted as essentially stupid, easily duped by white men, whatever side they’re on. There’s finally little difference between Slade’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of them against Western Union and Creighton’s when he wins them over with a trick about the “powerful medicine” carried by the wire (especially when an electric current is run through it at the appropriate moment). And when, in the wake of Creighton’s trickery, the Western Union team leaves the scene, the smug shot of the deceived Indians happily waving them goodbye is embarrassing. Lang apparently cast reservation Navajos rather than Paiutes to play the Indians. (The supporting players also include an uncredited Jay Silverheels, the Canadian Mohawk actor who’s now probably best known for his Tonto in The Lone Ranger TV series.) 


Fritz Lang

As for Lang’s earlier-cited claim to Bogdanovich that nothing from the novel found its way into the film: the details of the two works indicate what might generously be described as a faulty memory. Blake has clearly been inspired by the novel’s tenderfoot narrator, Wayne Cameron, even if the role he plays in the film’s story is a different one. And Scott’s Vance Shaw is, like his equivalent in the book, an experienced man of the West, the contrast between the two men serving as a key feature in both novel and film. 


Furthermore, the rivalry in the film between them over Sue has clearly been suggested by what Cameron sees as the competition between their equivalents in the novel for Kit, the daughter of the wagon train boss. The brief fire that breaks out in the camp in the film has its source in the novel’s extended prairie-fire passages (chapters 6 and 7). The scene in which Creighton tricks the Indians with an electric current has its source in the novel where, as a group of marauding Indians are carrying off stolen wire, an electrical storm strikes, turning their booty into a lethal threat. And, finally, both novel and film also share a potent sense of a moment in American history occurring as the plot unfolds.


Shot in Arizona and Utah, Western Union introduced executive producer Harry Joe Brown to actor Scott, the pair subsequently working on 18 projects together (most notably the Ranown Cycle directed by Budd Boetticher). Jack Andrews, George Bruce (The Crowd Roars) and novelist Horace McCoy (whose extensive screenplay work also included The Lusty Men and Rage at Dawn) were uncredited contributors to the film’s dialogue.


1. Paul M. Jensen, The Cinema of Fritz Lang, Zwemmer/Barnes, 1969, p. 132

2. Zane Grey, Western Union, Walter J. Black, Inc., New York, 1939

3. Peter Bogdanovich, Fritz Lang in America, Studio Vista, 1967, p. 45


There’s a very good Technicolor print of Western Union streaming on YouTube if you click here

Editor's Note: Tom Ryan's latest book The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions is available via Amazon

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