The Western isn’t my go-to genre, but I have been surprised by a few in my film reviewing career as I was with Dodge City, recently released on Blu-ray through Warner Home Entertainment. A take on the Wyatt Earp story, director Michael Curtiz takes the basic tenets of the Western and uses it to craft a story not too far removed from his later work, Casablanca. Lovingly restored in a Blu-ray as luscious and vivid as the land itself, Dodge City shot its way into my top ten best Westerns list.
Manifest Destiny’s in full swing and “the nation turns to the building of the West.” The town of Dodge City, unfortunately, has become “packed with settlers, thieves, and guns,” leading to near daily confrontations in the streets with deadly results. Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) is a cattle agent bearing witness to the horrors of the town, and butting up against the instigator of the violence, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot).
Errol Flynn always believed he was miscast as Wade Hatton, the cowboy with the English speaking accent. The script tries defusing the situation by mentioning Wade’s Irish upbringing but it’s irrelevant. Curtiz’s swift direction and Robert Buckner’s screenplay write characters with such flair and emotion that you can ignore a slight lilt in Flynn’s voice. If anything, the accent tells you everything you need to about Flynn without unfurling strings of exposition. We immediately deduce Wade’s genteel manner as commanding, bookish (he’s one of the few men who reads Shakespeare of all things!), and cultured. He’s also so comfortable on a horse that watching him walk around looks a dog walking on its hind legs. When Flynn disappears for any length of time he’s missed because he’s so charismatic. There’s also a jaw-dropping scene I can only describe as Flynn water-skiing alongside a horse. I doubt Flynn did the stunt, but it’s amazing and worth a shout.
Curtiz deftly takes the Western archetypes and creates a world both lawless and bound by a strict set of rules, conventions and uniqueness. This balance starts from the opening scene where a group of fat cat lawmakers talk about the thriving town they’ve “created” by doing little more than brokering deals and hammering in one, strategically placed, golden nail. They giddily decide to challenge a stagecoach running alongside the train to a race, one of the first contrasts we see. This race between animal and man (“iron man vs. iron horses”), technology and antiquity segues into the world of Dodge City, a land both violent and domestic.
The juxtaposition between our hero and villain seems so brave in this new world; too often in Westerns the baddie is a grizzled, drooling cad of the highest caliber, whose outside probably matches their insides. Bruce Cabot is just as tall and imposing as Flynn as well as being just as put together and good looking. Where Wade has a set of rules bound up in law and ethics, Jeff has his own rules centered on money and power. He lives by a code, one that benefits him directly and scares off everyone else. And yet, much like those train-riding fat cats we see earlier, Jeff passes the buck on committing his horrors, farming them out to his two lackeys. The instigation of law and order in the town under Hatton’s rule ends up turning the rough and tumble city into “a sissy town,” leading to questions about where the lines are drawn between civic exuberance and pride, and outright violence.There’s a staunch government vs. law dichotomy that plays alongside the film’s subtle political implications — a reason and message behind the fact that, with Hatton’s role as sheriff, an introduction of a free press takes place.
World War II started the year of this film’s release, but the bubbling turmoil in Dodge City acts as an eerie warning to that impending event, including a sing-off between two competing groups – one singing “Marching Through Georgia” while the other sings “I Wish I Was in Dixie.” The powder keg atmosphere and dual ideologies are in full effect and it’s understandable why Curtiz utilized this same concept, albeit with different songs, in Casablanca.
Curtiz also uses color as a means of describing thoughts and characterization in lieu of dialogue. Beginning with wide, brown expanse as the train enters Dodge City, everything looks so lifeless and wooden you understand where the adage “let’s get the hell out of Dodge” came from. The characters’ clothes are all various shades of earth, pulling them into the background. The only identifying traits are the men’s colored shirts; Flynn’s is green, identifying him as a savior bringing renewal and life into the city. All the men, regardless of shirt color, are placed at odds with the governmental structure; the cowboys are bound to the land while the government men are dressed in funereal black. Olivia De Havilland’s Abbie Irving is introduced outside of the city limits, where we become privy to the blue sky and golden soil of a land untainted by man. A night out camping turns into a scene shot during the magic hour, culminating in an exquisite sunset showing off God’s country. (All of this is just breathtaking in the restored Blu.ray.)
I almost forgot Olivia de Havilland is in this, the fifth of nine movies she’d make opposite Flynn. Abbie Irving doesn’t have much of a character until the film’s second half and her introduction places her alongside her perpetually drunken brother (William Lundigan), a kid who starts drinking before noon and likes to shoot things. After his quick demise, Abbie disappears until nearly an hour into the film. Thankfully, this hour allows the character to blossom with Abbie taking up the mantle of working for the newspaper, writing about things women want to know. Wade and her family declare the profession “unladylike” and Abbie definitely puts them in their place. She’s almost like Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in that she may not have the most agency, but she has her own principles and isn’t content to sit back and let the men decide for her.
I would have never expected I’d write this much about Dodge City but, much like My Darling Clementine a few years back, it’s a film that gave me various things to unpack. It’s an emotionally resonant, unassuming film packed with implications both political and local. It’s also a Western both representative of the genre and, at times, completely outside of it.
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