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The movie is something of a Social Network for the 1860s, depicting mass communication as the dominant force of the zeitgeist. Indeed, the characters are so obsessed with establishing the first coast-to-coast telegraph line that they often forget the Civil War’s going on. The telegraph also influences the way characters relate to each other. In a clever motif, a group operators “speak” to each other in Morse code as a way of passing along secrets. And in one scene, Randolph Scott’s character scares a group of Indians into respecting the will of Western Union by shocking them with a live cable—an image of technology’s triumph over man and nature.
The plot of Western Union is organized like a lattice of conflicting interests and desires—or, to continue the metaphor, like a hub where different cables intersect. Every narrative conflict is triangulated. The western expansion of the telegraph faces violent opposition from both Native American tribes, who don’t want anyone trespassing on their land, and from Confederate soldiers, who want to sabotage any tool that might help the Union Army. (In one nifty development, Scott discovers that a group of Indian saboteurs are actually Confederates in disguise—it feels like something out of a novel by Lang admirer Thomas Pynchon.) The two heroes, rugged surveyor Vance Shaw (Scott) and Harvard man Richard Blake (Robert Young), compete for the affections of Sue Creighton (Virginia Gilmore), a beautiful operator from Omaha. And Shaw finds himself pulled by several different forces: his criminal past (which, in western movie fashion, comes back to haunt him), the commercial interests of Western Union, and his desire to strike out on his own.
This narrative structure recalls the interlocking conspiracies of Lang’s Spiders (1919) and Spies (1928). What’s interesting is how Lang uses the structure—a crucial innovation of Modernist fiction—to meditate on historical fact. The film reaches some characteristically cynical conclusions, none more damning than its final shot. After a violent showdown in which one of the major characters is killed (a sequence that feels especially Langian in its streamlined action and sense of doom), the film concludes with an anticlimactic conversation about how far the telegraph has come. Lang dissolves to an image of telegraph poles standing tall in the American desert, a reminder that faceless commercial interests will endure over the suffering of individuals.