Fritz Lang is renowned as one of the great directors of early German cinema, making 17 features from 1919 to 1933. Some of these films are the most famous of their time, including the likes of Metropolis (1927), Woman in the Moon (1929), M (1931), and the Dr Mabuse series of spy thrillers (1922-33). As the Nazis rose to power, however, Lang wisely retired from German cinema and relocated first to Paris and then to Los Angeles. It was in the USA where he directed the majority of his output, including the 1941 classic Western Union.
On the eve of the American Civil War, engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) is tasked with laying a telegraph line from Nebraska to Utah on behalf of the Western Union company. To aid in his efforts, Creighton hires the inexperienced Richard Blake (Robert Young) and the reformed Missouri outlaw Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott).
Watching Western Union is the 21st century showcases a genre in transition; there are effectively two different kinds of western playing out side-by-side, and one tends to dominate the other in terms of drama and character. The over-arching narrative is largely an ensemble piece, with Creighton overseeing the line work and a series of supporting characters undertaking the actual work. It results in a story told in a fairly episodic fashion, with a fair amount of comedy played out as vignettes. It offers a little bit of entertainment to all sides of the audience as well. There is drama, romance, a spot of action, and humour all mixed through together. It is all rather superficial, but it is well presented and paced for an audience seeking a distraction from the impending World War.
There is a second narrative running alongside the first, one in which Scott takes the lead as outlaw Vance Shaw. We first meet him on the run through a herd of buffalo, where he goes out of his way to aid an injured Creighton despite the risk to his own safety. When he returns to Creighton, reformed from a life of crime and looking for work, Creighton is all too happy to sign him up. When Shaw then encounters his old gang planning against the Western Union company, his allegiances are challenged and he guiltily tries to thread a needle between two masters. Compared to the rest of the film it is three-dimensional, mature, and moves in unexpected, ethically compromised directions. It is no wonder that Randolph Scott endured for so many years in westerns: he demonstrates darker levels and complexities that he co-stars do not.
Western Union is based on a novel by Zane Grey, albeit not too closely. It is also relatively liberal with its historical accuracy, inventing an entire ‘cowboys and indians’ sub-plot involving the Sioux nation that never occurred in real life. Despite casting some Native American actors in key roles, it is still a racist portrayal in keeping with the time in which it was made. It is ultimately down to the individual viewer on how to navigate this: frame it in historical context, or abandon it as unfit for a modern purpose? Neither approach is wrong, per se, but the colonialist bigotry is largely unavoidable.
This is an enjoyable, albeit old-fashioned western, that should please most genre enthusiasts while providing a look at how the story form developed in its earlier years. As a film by Fritz Lang, it feels enormously second-rate: his earlier German works really stand out in comparison, and this feels more like a mild curiosity. One wonders what his early expressionist tendencies would have done for the western.