1939: generally referenced as the greatest of all epochs in American cinema but also the year Hollywood finally decided to take the western seriously. The American west has long fired the imagination of authors and film-makers with its harrowing tales of daring do; lusty women and hearty men, carving their niche upon the untouched gravely soil and craggy mesas. The west was already legendary by the time Hollywood undertook to immortalize its iconic heroes and villains in the silent and early talkies. Alas, the dream merchants quickly assessed the genre’s potency as fit for the cheaply made and serialized B-quickie; kiddie fodder, shot on a shoestring for the Saturday matinee. No self-respecting star would be caught dead in a western and no A-list dream factory would deign to make one. And so it remained until 1939; the year imminent director, John Ford debuted Stagecoach – arguably, the first adult-themed western melodrama the movies had ever known. Today, it seems like a no brainer to take the western seriously as an indigenous and uniquely American art form. Yet, William Fox Studios had tried as much all the way back in 1930 with Raoul Walsh’s costly western epic, The Big Trail – a sprawling saga starring a then practically unknown John Wayne and shot in an experimental new widescreen process – Grandeur – an early descendent of Fox’s future patented Cinemascope.
The colossal failure of The Big Trail sealed the fate of the western for the next ten years as Hollywood discovered other ways to ‘better’ entertain its audiences. But after Ford’s monumental success with Stagecoach, the floodgates were reopened and the western, which had lain dormant for an entire decade, was suddenly rife for renewal and rediscovery. Jack L. Warner was a gambling man. Moreover, he liked the idea of always being at the forefront of a new movement with untapped potentiality for even bigger revenues. Better still; Warner was in the enviable position of having under contract one of most robust he-men in the business: Errol Flynn, whose popularity cut across barriers of gender, race and age. Flynn had had an inauspicious start in the movies. An adventurist, world traveler and notorious rake (among his other amiable attributes), Flynn possessed a wanderer’s spirit and the very good sense to know that in Hollywood he could limitlessly ply himself with distractions of every shape and size; provided, of course, he was scrubbed and tubbed, looking immaculately handsome on the set by 6:00am. Flynn’s legion of fans was instantly born after his rousing Warner debut in Captain Blood (1935): a swashbuckler that set many standards and would see his career through well into the 1950’s, before the vices of strong drink and moderate drug abuse began to take their toll on his rugged façade and ability to do good work.
Jack Warner was not taking a gamble on Flynn by casting him as Wade Hatten, cattle rustler cum sheriff in Michael Curtiz’s Dodge City (1939), so much as he was ever-so-slightly expanding upon Flynn’s already ensconced public persona as a robust paragon of action and virtue who could handle himself in any fist fight, but also in most any romantic clench with his leading ladies. Taking no chances Curtiz’s western yarn could become a flop, Warner padded out the cast with other familiar faces frequently adorning one of Flynn’s costume epics: Olivia de Havilland as his leading lady, Abbie Irving and Alan Hale, once again cast as Flynn’s loveably obtuse sidekick, Rusty Hart. New discoveries were afoot too; Clara Lou Sheridan (rechristened as Ann), looking radiant in vintage Technicolor as the wayward saloon entertainer, Ruby Gilman (a small, but noticeable part) and Bruce Cabot as her equally as devious paramour, Jeff Surrett. Keener eyes would also immediately recognize Victor Jory as Yancey, a noted stage actor who never made much of a splash in films, except to mark his presence with a sinister note; and character actors, Frank McHugh, Henry Travers and Henry O’Neill as newspaper editor, Joe Clemens, Dr. Irving and Colonel Dodge respectively.
Warner also sweetened the allure of the picture by electing to photograph it in Technicolor; a new, exceptionally costly and very time-consuming process then, but sure to capitalize on the rustic splendor of Sol Polito’s stunningly lensed location photography; also, the beauty of its two vibrant stars looking positively radiant. Jack could be assured of this. Flynn and de Havilland had already appeared in another Technicolor venture, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to exceptional effect. Sporting virtually every cliché ascribed the western genre now; including a harrowing race between a stagecoach and steaming locomotive, a cattle stampede, and, one of the most epic saloon brawls in cinema history, Dodge City assuredly went into production under Michael Curtiz’s skilled direction. This was the sort of movie Curtiz was born to make: full of death-defying stunts and action, lurid drama, titanic set pieces and moving like gangbusters from beginning to end. Yet, in hindsight, Dodge City does not come together as it should. Robert Buckner’s screenplay takes far too long to find its narrative direction; the predictable setup of Flynn and de Havilland, as adversarial love interests destined to wind up together before the final reel, hampered by too many episodic vignettes along the way that have absolutely nothing to do with their burgeoning love story.
Dodge City is not so much interested in telling a story as it remains heavily steeped in showing off the spectacular production values afforded it. Shooting in Technicolor means a lot of flashy set pieces get the lion’s share of attention and screen time; expansive vistas under which the covered wagon trains make their way to this lawless outpost, currently the last stop on the rail line; a fire on board a runaway train or a common fist fight turned free for all in which no extra is spared: these moments rightfully deserving of their glossy sheen and impressive array of richly saturated hues really gets the heart pumping. Alas, they do nothing for the mind. Dodge City is a fairly stilted movie for any number of reasons; some, growing more obvious with the passage of time. While Errol Flynn cuts a dashing figure in his dungarees, chaps and six-shooter, there is something mildly effete about his cordiality toward de Havilland’s caustic and stern heroine, who begins by erroneously blaming Wade for her arrogant and juvenile brother, Lee’s (William Lundigan) untimely demise (trampled to death during a cattle stampede he instigated by firing a few drunken-induced shots from his pistol into the air after Wade expressly asked him not to), but later, and fairly predictably, she melts in Wade’s arms after realizing he has only her best interests at heart.
In retrospect, the production is immeasurably blessed to have Bruce Cabot as its formidable baddie. Flynn and Cabot were very good friends in real life; a pair of rapscallions cut from the same cloth, enjoying the high life and pulling pranks between takes on the set. Cabot, whose career would never advance beyond this hook and worm stage, is immensely appealing as the evil overseer of criminal activities in Dodge City, the perfect counterpoint to Flynn’s forthright/upright man of action. Hence, the problems with Dodge City are mostly structural. There’s not enough time for Flynn to woo de Havilland’s self-sacrificing young Miss. The two merely, and very occasionally, butt heads. Abbie resents and resists taking orders from Flynn’s self-assured pillar of strength in one scene, but then inexplicably is seen on a casual ride on horseback alone with this man she presumably despises only a scene or two earlier; seemingly having buried the hatchet, at least enough to allow Wade to inquire about planting an affectionate kiss on her lips, then permitting him to follow through.
Dodge City begins with a timeless main title composed by Max Steiner. From here, we move into Curtiz’ first set piece; a drag race between a steaming locomotive and a stage coach, both bound for Dodge City, the last stop on the rail line. Aboard the train is Colonel Dodge who, upon his arrival to this, as yet, very tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere, declares with certainty that one day it shall be a beacon of triumph, signaling the age of progress in the uncharted western frontier. All evidence to the contrary, as Dodge evolves into a lawless enclave where gunslingers readily settle their differences in the streets in a blaze of glory and sin, graft and other forms of human corruption run rampant. Wade Hatton has made rather a bad enemy of the town’s most influential purveyor of these depravities; Jeff Surrett. Years earlier, Wade had Jeff and his posse arrested for hunting buffalo without a permit. Sometime later, Jeff proves just how ruthless he can be, snookering Matt Cole (John Litel) out of his rightful share of moneys from the sale of his cattle, then instigating his cold-blooded murder inside the Gay Lady Saloon by having his right-hand man, Yancey shoot Cole dead on the erroneous presumption he was about to pull a gun on them. Later, during an unrelated act of lawlessness in the streets, Matt’s young son, Harry (Bobs Watson) is killed after being dragged by a team of wild horses spooked by gunshots.
Together with a small party of concerned citizens who are tired of seeing their life’s work being desecrated by Jeff’s entourage of free-wheeling reprobates, Dr. Irving suggests what Dodge City really needs is a man like Wade Hatton who will brook no nonsense and straighten out the town without fear of reprisals from Jeff’s men. At first, Wade resists. But when Harry is brutally killed before his eyes, he elects to take up the good people’s cause and clean up Dodge City. Naturally, his form of good government comes into repeated conflict with Jeff and his boys who make several unsuccessful attempts on both Wade and Rusty’s lives. Wade dives headstrong, but heart-sure into a series of edicts decreed by law to rid Dodge of its criminal element; ordering every man turn in his weapons before entering the city limits and levying taxes to ensure the growth of a stable government and law force to maintain order and peace in the land. Jeff attempts to lure Wade from his commitments with a bribe. But Wade vows even more resolutely to send Jeff and his entourage packing. The town’s newspaper editor-in-chief, Joe Clemens, is an ardent supporter of Wade’s cause. However, when Joe is murdered by Yancey under Jeff’s orders, Wade realizes two things: first, he is desperately in love with Abbie, and second, only she possesses the evidence to send Jeff away to prison for a very long time. As such, her life is in grave danger.
Appealing to Doctor and Mrs. Irving (Georgia Caine) to get Abbie out of town on the next train with God’s speed – even as she stubbornly refuses to budge – Wade also has Rusty arrest Yancey for Joe’s murder. Everyone boards the next train bound for Kansas City, presumably to safety. Alas, Jeff and his boys have also boarded. They attack Wade and Rusty in the baggage car, a lantern toppling over and catching fire on the bundles of mail. Jeff takes Abbie hostage. Meanwhile, his posse is pursuing the train on horseback, presumably to offer a means of fast escape. Wade saves Abbie from Jeff’s clutches, the lovers, along with Rusty, seemingly trapped and doomed to burn to death in the baggage car. Rusty uses an axe to break the back wall to freedom and safety. He further subdues one of Jeff’s men holding the train conductor hostage. Together, Wade and Rusty shoot Jeff, Yancey and the rest of his men as they attempt their escape on horseback. The nightmare is at an end. Dodge City is free for democracy, peace and good government to take hold.
Alas, a short while later Colonel Dodge informs Wade of the perils afflicting Virginia City, as wicked a cesspool as Dodge ever was and in desperate need of a man of his character and abilities to straighten it out. Rusty is delighted at the prospect of beginning anew. But Wade informs the Colonel he and Abbie are engaged, planning to set up house in Dodge after their New York honeymoon. Recognizing her man must go where he is needed most – though not without her at his side – a tearful Abbie enters the room, inquiring as to when they are expected to arrive in Virginia City. The movie ends with Wade and Abbie’s covered wagon approaching a violent orange sunset, their future unsure, but their commitment to each other strengthened for all time.
Dodge City is undeniably sumptuous, mounted with all the moneys, time and effort Jack Warner could spare; by far, the most expensive western saga then yet attempted for the screen. And yet, it occasionally disappoints, failing to come together as a cohesive whole or even carve its niche into our collective memory as a truly outstanding achievement in the western genre. In 1939, none of Dodge City’s shortcomings mattered. The film was given a rousing tribute and world premiere in Dodge City, Warner turning his spotlight and cameras on documenting three days of rodeos, parades and other celebrations that accompanied the mass public hysteria and movie land publicity hype. In hindsight, Jack’s fervor is a little obvious; an attempt to supplant David O. Selznick’s media blitz for the Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind; arguably, the most heady and heavily documented premiere ever staged. In retrospect, Warner’s zeal and publicity certainly did the trick for Dodge City. But Dodge City is no Gone With The Wind and as years pass it seems even less likely to acquire a tenth of its reputation.
There are far better Errol Flynn movies yet to see the light of day on Blu-ray; The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and, The Adventures of Don Juan immediately coming to mind. Alas, none except Elizabeth and Essex were released in 1939 and since Warner Home Video has elected to release Dodge City as part of their 1939: Golden Year box set, its debut in hi-def has taken precedence over more worthy titles in Flynn’s back catalog. Aside: personally, I would have preferred Elizabeth and Essex to this movie, a superior melodrama co-starring Flynn and Warner’s grand dame, Bette Davis, and desperately in need of a new spiffy digital transfer. Likewise, the old Warner DVD of Dodge City was, frankly, a travesty; suffering from severe mis-registration of the Technicolor negative, even more severe color fading; poor contrast and a barrage of age-related dirt, scratches and damage that made it virtually unwatchable: a very painful experience to say the least.
Warner Home Video’s new 1080p Blu-ray rectifies virtually all of these sins and stands in stark contrast to its standard def counterpart. Dodge City's image is better defined on the whole, although some background details still appear a tad soft to my eye. Nevertheless, this presentation retains a film-like texture with indigenous grain perfectly preserved. I still have an issue with the color. Mis-registration is a non-issue. But flesh continues to adopt a fairly unhealthy pinkish tone. Everyone’s complexion looks newly sunburnt rather than appropriately ruddy from being weathered by the sun and elements. Overall, this transfer offers some very impressive, vivid and varied hues; a dazzling display and reminder of why early Technicolor made such an impression on audiences. Regrettably, Warner Home Video persists in mastering its movies on BD-25 discs with lower than average bit rates. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. While fine tuning has managed to conceal all but a few compression-related artifacts occasionally noticed in quieter background information, the point is there is no logically reason why any of it should have happened if only Warner had elected to spend a few more dollars on a BD-50 and spread out their bandwidth. Dumb! Silly! Unnecessary. Understandably, I am not a fan!
Dodge City gets a DTS mono mix that is remarkably vibrant, the old Westrex audio holding up spectacularly well with crisp dialogue and Max Steiner’s lyrical score sounding appropriately sublime. Extras have all been ported over from the old DVD, including a Merrie Melody cartoon, short subject, ‘Sons of Liberty’ and an all too brief featurette in which a good many noted historians are utterly wasted in snippets and sound bites, attesting to Dodge City’s greatness. Bottom line: Dodge City is not a great western. It is a big and noisy one with a few excellent moments to recommend it. But it doesn’t have the staying power of Stagecoach. If you don’t look too hard this transfer will not disappoint. It isn’t perfect, but it is light years ahead of the abysmal disaster Warner foisted upon the unsuspecting public back on DVD in 2004. Recommended, though with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)