Dodge City (1939)

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Buckner

The magical team of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Michael Curtiz teamed together in 1938 for one of my favorite films of all time. No, I’m not talking about Dodge City, the next film up in my westerns marathon. I’m talking about The Adventures of Robin Hood, whose great swashbuckling adventure is reason enough to once again be excited to see what Errol, Olivia and Michael can do together once again. This is, in fact, the third such Curtiz/Flynn/de Havilland film I will have seen, with Captain Blood being the other. While Robin Hood may be the pinnacle, I have seen more than enough to make the statement that this trio is one of my favorite to watch on screen. Flynn has an undeniable charisma, while de Havilland has an elegant grace. Meanwhile, Curtiz proves once again to be one of the best old Hollywood directors of his time. We’ll meet this trio once more down the trail with Sante Fe Trail.

After helping bring civilization to west Kansas with the railroad, cattle driver Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) now returns to Dodge City with a wagon train to find the city has fallen into vice and dangerous lawlessness, led by gang leader Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), who has tossed the sheriff out of town and taken control. After a contentious encounter with Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) on the cattle drive, Hatton is now asked by Abbie’s uncle (Henry Travers) whether he will stay in town to be the new sheriff, to bring law back to Dodge City and stand up for its citizens. Hatton is facing a fight on his hands when he eventually accepts the request, as Surrett and his gang are out to take back their town after Hatton successfully cleans it up.

The idea of placing Errol Flynn in the west, as a cowboy, is a welcome suggestion, even if Flynn himself was worried what the reception might be, with Dodge City being his first trip to the rough and ready west. His charisma is what sets him apart from his contemporaries, not any genre specific niche, even if he is the quintessential swashbuckler. In many ways, I found his sense of humor and bravado to be perfectly fitting for the west, in particular the role of Wade Hatton, a good-natured, well-intentioned and principled man who wants nothing more than the west to become civilized, not to be taken advantage of and terrorized as some outlaws would like. His portrayal of the upstanding citizen, while differing from the outlaw with a moral compass he plays in Robin Hood, is central to Dodge City‘s success as a film.

It does take some time to get going in some ways, as the Dodge City dynamics play themselves out. But at each turn is a moment worth cheering for, as Hatton stops illegal buffalo hunters, or refuses to do business with Surrett after learning what a ruthless thug he is. There is no questioning Hatton’s ability as a lawman. His intentions assure he will be a success. The story is fairly predictable in that way, just as it was predictable that Abbie would eventually fall for Hatton, even after their turbulent beginnings. While the film delivers nothing surprising, it is delivered in a very polished manner thanks in large part to the directions from Michael Curtiz, whose decisions behind the camera bring a certain excitement that is quite noticeable after having just seen Lloyd Bacon’s The Oklahoma Kid, which lacked a visual flair.

Dodge City‘s pop of color is also a treat. As just the second color film in this westerns marathon, it uses it considerably better than Jesse James did. The next few decades of film would flip flop back and forth between the two, and I will certainly be curious to track the progress and use of color photography within the genre, highlighting the stunning vistas and landscapes of the west. Flynn and de Havilland are just a delight to watch work together, and in Dodge City, it may not be their best work, but they are no less enjoyable to watch. The film is nothing special. It does nothing to stand head and shoulders above any other western of its time, but its definitely a fun, entertaining, and well made film, worthy of consideration for any fan of the genre, Flynn/de Havilland or Michael Curtiz. The best I can say is that Dodge City is a darn solid film.

*** – Good

P.S. I found it interesting the film ends with Hatton and Abbie accepting the task of moving to Virginia City and cleaning that town up too. Curtiz and Flynn would go on to make Virginia City in 1940 (one of the next films in this marathon), and yet it isn’t about Hatton. Opportunity missed!

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