This is one of Lang’s first color films. He shot it in Arizona’s Painted Desert with special attention to the natural scenery, and the three-strip Technicolor cinematography is quite beautiful to look at it, even today. It must have bowled over audiences in 1941.
The surprising thing about this film is how comparatively unLangian it is. For the first two-thirds of the picture, we get almost none of Lang’s characteristic Germanic fatalism. Instead, we get an optimistic celebration of America’s westward expansion, in this case, by means of the telegraph line. (With regard to filmic celebrations of westward expansion, Ford’s The Iron Horse would be an obvious predecessor. A later example would be How the West Was Won.) Not that Lang hadn’t trod similar ground before. His Woman in the Moon (1929) is also about the exploration of a New Frontier – but with studio sets instead of Western Union‘s location shooting – and both that film and this one feature a romantic triangle. (In Western Union, Randolph Scott and Robert Young compete for the hand of Virginia Gilmour, the boss’s sister.)
Lang, who was always attracted to myths and legends, saw the American West as a kind of noble myth. Finally, after an hour of romance and very unLangian light comedy, things turn darker, visually and thematically. Native Americans attack – seen by Lang as agents of chaos, the ultimate horror in Lang’s world – and someone must make a sacrifice (again, as in Woman in the Moon) for the benefit of *progress.*