Lay them rails
Ever since The Great Train Robbery of 1903, considered by many to be the first Western movie, railroads have played a key part in the genre. Even before that, in fact, because all through the nineteenth century ballads, dime novels and plays had featured them. In The Fast Mail, a play of 1899, two trains chased one another across the stage. It must have been a remarkable sight. Buffalo Bill incorporated a train robbery into his Wild West spectacle. Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus is centered on conflict between farmers and the railroad.
At first, railroads in Westerns were a symbol of progress and advancement. The shining example is John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), a monumental film of “manifest destiny” describing the spanning of the continent, and rich with Indian attacks, cattle drives to feed the workers, skullduggery by local land developers, the shenanigans at the ‘Hell on Wheels’ temporary towns, and even appearances by Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. For the young Ford, the construction of the railroads symbolizes the unity of the nation, as desired by his great hero Abraham Lincoln.
Two years later, and in a lighter and less epic vein, Fox returned to the theme with its Tom Mix picture The Great K & A Train Robbery. Tom is a railroad detective, sent for by the company owner to investigate a series of pesky robberies. Naturally the railroad boss has a glam daughter, Madge (Dorothy Dwan, Dorothy in the silent Wizard of Oz the year before) – for it was compulsory in them days to have a glam daughter, and Tom duly falls for her. And of course there is much derring-do.
One great thing about The Great K & A is that the exterior scenes are filmed on the great Durango-to-Silverton railroad in Colorado. Now, if, like me, you have ridden that train (now, sadly, no longer steam driven) you will revel in any movie that features it, and many do. Denver & Rio Grande, Santa Fe, The Lone Hand, The Maverick Queen, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Colorado Territory and Night Passage, to name but a few. And John Wayne used it for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): now, Wayne was a Fox prop boy and uncredited extra on The Great K & A, so maybe that’s how he developed an affection for the Durango/Silverton line. But no matter how good or bad the Western is, it’s always enjoyable to see that train running up through that narrow gorge.
I couldn’t possibly list all the railroad Westerns that were made over the years. There are far too many. But I will mention a few key ones, and try to illustrate how the attitude to railroads changed.
Paramount’s Union Pacific in 1939, directed by Cecil B DeMille and starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, had much in common with The Iron Horse, above all its manifest destiny scope, and both pictures end with the climactic meeting of the CPR and UPR at Promontory Point, modeling the scene on the famous photograph. DeMille’s New Deal-era picture, coming at the end of a decade of economic depression, concentrates on the construction giving work to ex-soldiers and boosting trade.
But by the time of Union Pacific the villains of the piece were no so much local crooks trying to make a fast buck, which they had been in Ford's picture, as scheming Eastern financiers, speculators who have bought stock in the Central Pacific and want the meeting point to be farther east. This ‘crooked railroad men’ aspect was even more evident in Fox’s Technicolor blockbuster of the same year, Jesse James.
In this picture (and many subsequent Jesse James tales) the railroads are exploitative corporate Easterners oppressing decent Western folk, and the companies are legitimate targets. Their lackeys are the vile and murderous Pinkertons. The on-screen intro to Jesse James reads: The advance of the railroads was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. Whole communities found themselves victimized by an ever-growing ogre - the Iron Horse. There is of course no evidence whatsoever that Frank and Jesse James were fighting on behalf of gutsy Western farmers against wicked capitalists, and certainly not that they distributed their ill-gotten loot to the poor. Actually, when they started robbing trains the target was the express companies transporting money, not the railroads themselves. But it became the standard thesis, and 'justified' the depredations of the James-Younger gang. There were still Westerns that emphasized the march of progress. Warners’ Dodge City, another of the big Westerns of 1939, opens with a race between a train and a stagecoach. The train wins, and General Dodge, who is on board, declares, “Gentlemen, that’s a symbol of America’s future.” In the newly named Dodge City the general makes a speech about how the railroad will bring the blessings of civilization, and his discourse is studded with emotive words such as home, church and school. There is still, though, a whiff of regret that the stage lost the race; the old ways of the West are disappearing, like the buffalo. In a later picture too, The Professionals (1966), the ‘values’ of the railroad baron and Eastern corporate capitalism generally are contrasted with the decency, independence and do-the-right-thing grit of the Westerners, led by Lee Marvin.
In 1946 the blockbuster Duel in the Sun had a railroad theme, and once again it means progress. The Eastern-educated lawyer Joseph Cotten favors its coming while his old-fashioned and blustering father Lionel Barrymore wants to stop it at any cost.
John Ford returned to the railroad in his The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) when the railroad represents progress and the new order but regrettably. Senator Stoddard (James Stewart) rides into the old West town of Shinbone on the train, for he is the new order, and the town of his youth is the old world. “The place sure has changed,” he says. “Well, the railroad done that,” a character replies. Stoddard regards nostalgically the old Overland stagecoach, now laid up and cobwebbed in a barn, the one that he first rode into Shinbone on, the one outlaw Liberty Valance held up. Travel then was dangerous, uncomfortable and slow; now it’s modern, safe, fast and comfortable. But is that better, the picture asks, haven’t we lost something?
In Johnny Guitar (1954) Vienna (Joan Crawford) has built her fancy saloon to profit from the railroad’s imminent arrival, but her bitter enemy, cattle-owner Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) spits at her that it will bring in “Dirt farmers! Is that what you want?” Nothing will do for Emma but to hang Vienna and burn her place to the ground. This theme was taken up by Sergio Leone in the following decade when, in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) he had Claudia Cardinale follow Vienna’s example. But this time there is no Emma ranged against her: there is instead the ice-cold killer Henry Fonda, brilliantly cast, a hired gun for the railroad who, in a shocking moment, kills a small boy. The railroad has become truly evil now: Fonda’s boss, Mr Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a ruthless corporate baron of the worst kind, ready to go to any lengths to dispossess the farmers and run his line through. Leone seems to be questioning capitalism and even the idea of technological progress.
Randolph Scott loved building railroads, perhaps because as a young man he had trained as an engineer. He built the Canadian Pacific in 1949, and it is villain Victor Jory who describes how the new railroad will change their life for the worse and who whips up the Indians against it. It is taken for granted by the goodies that the railroad will bring peace, prosperity and a plethora of progress.
Soon after, in Columbia's Santa Fe (1951), Randy was at it again. This time he is track boss of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) and determined at all costs to drive his line Westwards through Kansas, Colorado and down into New Mexico. Naturally he has to face the opposition of outlaws, Indians and the rival Denver and Rio Grande RR but by grit, courage and resourcefulness he will, like the true Western hero he is, win out.
And as if that wasn’t enough, in 1952 there he was yet again, building a line up from Virginia City to Carson City. A banker and a railroad baron (Larry Keating and Thurston Hall), whom you obviously expect to be crooks, because they are a banker and a railroad baron, but amazingly aren’t, want, rather absurdly, to build a rail link to avoid the stage robberies plaguing the Comstock area (they don't say why the robbers wouldn't just start robbing the trains instead). They get happy-go-lucky railroad engineer Scott to build the line through mountainous terrain. Little does Randy know at the time (in fact it takes most of the movie before he works it out, doh) that slimy mine-owner Raymond Massey is the one behind the stage robberies all along. In this one the technology is well represented, with steam-driven drills cutting through the rock, so that's something.
Paramount's Denver and Rio Grande the same year had a similar plot to Santa Fe. It’s one of my favorite railroad Westerns of all time, in part because of the head on crash between two locomotives. These days steam trains are so rare and expensive that even railroad Westerns such as the 3:10 to Yuma remake (2007) have to fudge one with a hundred yards of track and fake smoke behind some buildings. The TV show Hell on Wheels (2011+) made a locomotive out of Styrofoam and wood. Disney did it in The Lone Ranger (2013) with computer graphics and special effects. But in the early 50s even mid-budget oaters could afford to crash two!
Santa Fe and Denver and Rio Grande concentrated on the railroad war of 1879 between the D&RG and the AT&SF to run a line up the narrow gorge (there was only room for one line) to the mining riches of Leadville. It was a great Western episode, with Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and the Dodge City Gang providing the guns for the AT&SF, though the D&RG finally won the war – in the courts. You can see how that would appeal to the writers of Western movies, though for some odd reason Bat and Doc were written out. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe received a lighter and more melodious treatment when Judy Garland sang about its glories in The Harvey Girls (1946), a movie I must get round to reviewing someday, despite its being a musical (ugh).
Kansas Pacific (1953) was yet another Western named for a railroad company. Sterling Hayden, who had been the bad railroad man in Denver and Rio Grande, is now a goody US Army captain undercover as railroad engineer, determined to build the Kansas Pacific line out to the West to provision forts for the coming Civil War. So it’s not one of those great Manifest Destiny continent-spanning railroad-building pictures. The railway isn’t being built to bring civilization to the West or tame the far frontier or anything; it’s more a necessity to beat the South. His opponent is future Confederate guerrilla leader Quantrill (Reed Hadley), determined to stop him at any cost. That undercover business of Sterling’s harks back to Tom Mix’s part in The Great K& A Train Robbery mentioned above, and it also refers to the various versions of Whispering Smith, because he was a railroad detective too. And don’t forget railway ‘tec Matt Clark in Stories of the Century, capturing every known outlaw ever seen in the West from before the Civil War to well into the twentieth century, and all without aging a year. Wish I had that knack. Whispering Smith was one of the great Western characters and he started life as the hero of a novel by Frank H Spearman in 1906. Spearman wrote a lot of fiction and non-fiction on the subject of railroads. His investigator was modeled on real-life Union Pacific detectives Timothy Keliher and Joe Lefors. Whispering appeared on the screen on no fewer than eight separate occasions, in four silent movies, in 1916, 1917, 1926, and 1927, and then talkies in 1930, 1935, 1948 and 1952. A remarkable record. The ’48 one was probably the most famous because it starred Alan Ladd in the title part, rather unconvincingly, if truth be told. He reprised it on the radio too. In the 1948 version, a “true story” (that's what they say), Ladd plays the railroad detective who, having dispatched two train-robber brothers, suspects his best friend (Robert Preston, full of vim as ever, the archetypal charming rogue) of harboring the third. Sure enough, Preston turns out to be leader of a gang of train wreckers who pillage the wrecks for loot. Then of course Audie Murphy assumed the mantle on TV in Whispering Smith (NBC, 1961).
Train robberies were such a common occurrence in Western movies that you’d think you could hardly travel without being subjected to one. R Michael Wilson in Great Train Robberies of the Old West estimates that there were perhaps a thousand robberies or attempted robberies from the end of the Civil War to 1910. Spread out over the years and the thousands of miles of track that isn’t too many but it’s still an average of 22 a year, so that’s a not inconsiderable likelihood. Famous train robbers we love to see were the Reno brothers, the James Gang and the Daltons, as well as Buthc Cassidy’s’s Hole in the Wall gang. Of course ideally they would gallop alongside the speeding cars and then leap aboard. Or their stunt doubles would. That was the only proper way to board a train.
Other ‘railroad’ Westerns you might want to look at include Buckskin Frontier (1943), in which, bizarrely, the railroad company is the goody; Wyoming Mail (1950), in which the train driver stabbed in the back by a knife thrown by a galloping horseman (a neat trick); A Ticket to Tomahawk (also 1950) in which they implausibly run a hugely heavy locomotive over a field without tracks; Rails into Laramie (1954), in which we almost get a D&RG-style head-on crash of two locomotives; Fury at Showdown (1957), in which farmers stand to gain if the railroad comes through but the inevitable crooked town boss is out to thwart them; Man from God’s Country (1958), in which this time the bad guy tries to stop the railroad because he owns a freight company that will go out of business; The Raiders (1963), in which Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane improbably help a Texas rancher against the railroad; and Wayne’s The Train Robbers (1973) obviously. But as I said before, there are so many that it’s really pointless to go on listing. Sorry if I’ve missed your favorite. Of course many of the real railroad magnates were indeed far from honest upright citizens. There’s more than a germ of truth in the idea of the ruthless company boss. I mentioned the AMC TV show Hell on Wheels earlier. That has as a central character Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant, played by the excellent Colm Meaney. Durant gained a reputation for great ruthlessness. He is rumored to have made a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states during the war. It was said of him that "Like Samson he would not hesitate to pull down the temple even if it meant burying himself along with his enemies." And he was supremely good at raising money and securing favorable national legislation. He had no qualms about what today would be called insider trading, and he very profitably talked up the stock of the M&M by saying the Union Pacific would link to it but secretly bought shares in a competing line and then announced that the UPR would link to that. Durant covered himself by having various politicians, including future President James Garfield, as limited stockholders. Calling him a shrewd operator doesn’t really cover it. By 1879 Jay Gould controlled 10,000 miles (16,000 km) of railway, about one-ninth of the rail in the United States at that time, and he had controlling interest in 15 percent of the country's railway tracks by 1882. He was attracted to the construction and ownership of a railroad network not by the idea of running a passenger and freight service, on which the margins would be modest, but as a speculation, making the most of the huge government land grant that went with laying the rails and manipulating the price of company stock.
Many of these railroad companies were mired deep in graft, bribing all manner of local and national politicians. This led to a huge scandal, and a huge shock to the US economy, whose seismic effects reached as far as the White House itself. Some of the railroad bosses were indeed dubious types, and Western movies had fun making them worse.
Well, nation-building goodies or ruthless, grasping baddies, the railroad men were an essential ingredient of our noble genre.