Western Union (1941)

“Tell him that the Great White Father who speaks with lightning over the singing wire is sorry for the wounding of his Indian son — but that the lightning talk is strong medicine, and it must go through.”

When a former outlaw (Randolph Scott) saves the life of a Western Union engineer (Dean Jagger), he’s offered a job with the company. As they string wires across the United States, the workers must confront tribes of Indians, as well as a gang of outlaws led by Scott’s brother, Slade (Barton MacLane). Meanwhile, both Scott and an east coast dandy (Robert Young) are interested in Jagger’s beautiful sister (Virginia Gilmore).


Few would guess that this historical western about the spread of telegraph lines across the American frontier was directed by Fritz Lang, an iconic director known primarily for his noir dramas and atmospheric visuals. Lang apparently wanted to alter the screenplay of Western Union, but was not given permission to do so; the result is a narrative which never quite rises above mediocrity, and is too often played for laughs. While Scott’s central dilemma — whether to betray his brother or not — is compelling, it’s constantly interrupted by inane subplots, particularly the underdeveloped “love triangle” between Scott, Young, and Gilmore. As in Lang’s first western (The Return of Frank James), the storyline here is almost entirely fictional; Lang himself noted that “in reality, nothing happened during the entire building of the line except that they ran out of wood for the telegraph poles, and the only other thing that disturbed the laying of the line was the ticks on the buffaloes; the buffaloes got itchy and rubbed themselves against the poles, and the poles tumbled. And that was all that happened.” Personally, I wouldn’t have minded seeing the buffaloes…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful Technicolor cinematography
    Western Union Cinematography
  • Slim Summerville responding indignantly to questions about his cooking abilities
    Western Union Cookie

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look.


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