“The only native of Kansas,” Wade Hatton informs Abby Irving, “is the buffalo. He’s got a very hard head, a very uncertain temper and a very lonely future. Apart from that there is hardly any comparison between you.”
Today in Flynn Week, we take a trip to Dodge City (1939), the heart of the Wild West, a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”
The movie starts evocatively with an impromptu race between a stagecoach driven by a grumpy oldtimer and a steamengine pulling a carriage full of rich old assholes. America, in the wake of the Civil War, is changing forever and the railroad is only a sign of the things to come. If you’re looking for a comment on how America was settled, however, Dodge City is not your movie.
On board the train, you see, is Colonel Dodge, who hopes the little settlement he founded would one day become an important economic hub inviting settlers from all over the country. Six years later, “Dodge” is indeed a bustling town central to the cattle business that settled the American West. Unfortunately, with shootouts in the streets and whoring and gambling in the buildings, it’s also a byword for lawlessness.
Enter Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), a restless adventurer his friend Rusty (Alan Hale) describes as a “moving man”. An Irishman who served the British army in India before fighting for the South in the War, he helped build the railroad but left for Texas rather than help settle Dodge the way the Colonel hoped. Back on business for the first time in six years, he has little interest in playing sheriff the way the townspeople want him to even if he has a personal animosity towards Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot), the man responsible for everything that’s wrong with Dodge. That only reinforces Abby Irving’s (Olivia de Havilland) poor opinion of him. She hasn’t felt too friendly towards him since he shot her brother, which contributed to his death in a stampede.
One tragedy later, everything is different. Hatton, with his friends Rusty and Tex (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams who looks eerily like President Bush), clean up the town by banning guns in the main streets and taxing the hell out of everything. Soon, families are moving in and people are going to church on Sunday, which gives Hatton plenty of time to support the freedom of press and act upon some investigative reporting. I guess the lesson there is, in the Wild West, Jesus votes Democrat.
I must say one of the things that’s always interesting about watching these movies is to wonder how they’d hold up in public opinion if they were made today. And while there is a default assumption that these movies must only be offensive to politically correct lefties, the truth is, these are the product of another era entirely and it shows. Pretty much every argument and norm of today stands on its head in these. I spent a few minutes, for example, wondering why the saloon girls (including Ann Sheridan as Ruby, the main draw) wouldn’t raise their skirts above the knee until I realized, “duh! 1930s!”
The most charming bits of the movie, predictably, are the ones which feature Flynn and de Havilland together. But the rest isn’t bad at all, even if Dodge City is not the kind of western we’re used to today.