Cecil B. DeMille western epic debuts on Blu 3.5 Stars

When Cecil B. DeMille left theater behind, he would begin his career as a director with a Western (and the very first movie ever made in Hollywood), The Squaw Man (1914). Over the course of the next several years, he would turn out several westerns before moving on to scandalous dramas and biblical epics. When he returned to Paramount Pictures in the 1930’s, he also returned to the Western genre a couple more times, with Union Pacific being one of them. Previously released on DVD as part of the Cecil B. DeMille Collection by Universal, Kino has licensed the film for its Blu-ray debut.

Union Pacific (1939)
Released: 05 May 1939
Rated: Passed
Runtime: 135 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Romance
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Akim Tamiroff
Writer(s): Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky Jr.
Plot: In 1862, Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads compete westward across the wilderness toward California.
IMDB rating: 7.1
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: X Hr. X Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Blue keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 08/03/2021
MSRP: $24.99

The Production: 4/5

When President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 into law, it starts off the race to link the East and West Coast of the United States by railroad. However, it also set off a plan of schemers – led by banker Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) – to profit from the obstruction of the railroad’s construction. Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), the troubleshooter of the Union Pacific project, not only has to challenge the obstructionists – led by gambler Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) – but also fight for the affections of postmistress Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck) with his best friend Dick Allen (Robert Preston), who also happens to be working with Campeau. Despite the challenges of political intrigue and love, nothing – not even stampeding buffalo or train wrecks – will stop Jeff from making sure the Union Pacific connects America from sea to shining sea.

For his last movie to be filmed in black and white, Cecil B. DeMille chose the saga of the Union Pacific for his swan song before transferring to Technicolor for the rest of his career. The movie – which would also be the director’s last true Western (he would go to Canada for 1940’s North West Mounted Police) – also bears many of the trademarks of DeMille’s showmanship; a spectacular train wreck, buffalo stampede as well as a great rescue atop railroad flat cars rank among some of the best moments in any DeMille movie (and which likely earned the film’s lone Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects). Also, while the script does take some liberties with historical facts – not uncommon by DeMille standards – the production is very well mounted and shot; the same golden spike that was used to join the Central and Union Pacific railroads together at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869 was even used in the reenactment! In short, Union Pacific is top notch entertainment from a master of spectacle.

As the troubleshooter determined to get the railroad finished, Joel McCrea has one of his better roles; he would later transfer to almost exclusively appearing in Westerns in the second half of the 1940’s, starting with The Virginian up to his final film Mustang Country (1976). Sporting an Irish brogue, Barbara Stanwyck is appropriately feisty as the postmistress Mollie; Brian Donlevy shows why he was considered one of the best villains in the business – he was nominated for an Oscar for playing a sadistic Foreign Legion sergeant in Beau Geste the same year as this movie – as the gambler turned railroad profiteer Sid Campeau. Robert Preston turns in one of his earliest lovable rogue performances – he made a career out of them – as Dick Allen while Henry Kolker represents the shadowy hand pushing against the railroad as the banker trying to profit from its delay. Standing out from the ensemble cast of supporting players are Lynne Overman and Akim Tamiroff as railroad scouts on watch for Indians, Stanley Ridges as General Jack Casement, Francis McDonald as General Grenville Dodge, Willard Robertson as US Representative Oakes Ames, Harold Goodwin and Evelyn Keyes as – respectively – the railroad telegrapher and his wife, Emory Parnell as the railroad foreman and uncredited appearances from Guy Usher as Central Pacific president Leland Stanford and John Marston as Union Pacific vice president Thomas Durant.

Video: 4/5

3D Rating: NA

The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio for this release. Film grain, gray scale and fine details are all given a faithful representation with minor instances of scratches, vertical lines, dirt or tears present. This release likely represents the best the movie will ever look on home video and is an improvement over the film’s previous DVD release as part of the Cecil B. DeMille Collection.

Audio: 5/5

The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear, with the music score and sound mix also given a faithful representation as well; there’s minimal cases of distortion, crackling or hissing present here. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and an improvement over the previous DVD release.

Special Features: 3/5

Commentary by film historians Dr. Eloise Ross & Paul Anthony Nelson – Recorded for this release, Dr. Ross and Nelson go over the movie’s production history as well as some more interesting details; most notably, the movie’s credit sequence was an inspiration for Star Wars many years later.

Theatrical Trailer (1:28)

Bonus KLSC Trailers – The Great Man’s Lady, The Bride Wore Boots, All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, The Virginian, The Gunfight at Dodge City, The Sign of the Cross, Four Frightened People, The Plainsman, Reap the Wild Wind & Unconquered

The 2017 Region B Koch Media Blu-ray release had a 107 minute dubbed and edited German version of the movie that’s not present here.

Overall: 3.5/5

A magnificent display of spectacle of the early days of the railroad – and also retrospectively awarded the Palme d’Or in 2002 for the cancelled first Cannes Film Festival of 1939 – Union Pacific ranks as one of the best movies Cecil B. DeMille ever made. Kino has done a great job with this release, featuring a solid HD transfer and another informative commentary track to complement the film. Very highly recommended and worth upgrading from the DVD; this only leaves The Crusades (1935) from the Cecil B. DeMille Collection DVD set still awaiting a Blu-ray release.

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Robert Crawford

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Thank you for your fine review. Your video presentation grade is slightly higher than mine of 3.75. My brief review can be found here. I didn't compare it to the DVD, but the German 2017 Blu-ray from Koch. IMO, both Blu-rays are derived from the same scan/transfer. You're right, it's probably the best we're ever going to see on home video. This movie has been a personal favorite of mine since I was in grade school. It's probably the first movie in which I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck as an actress. It was probably around the time "The Big Valley" TV series started in 1965, as I remembered having a conversation with my father about her as a young actress compared to her older self on the TV series. Her screen chemistry with Joel McCrea was really good and Robert Preston held his own as he was only 21 years old when he made that film. McCrea was 33 and Stanwyck was 32.