Dodge City (1939)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Robert Buckner
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
by Jon Cvack
It was exciting to check out Errol Flynn and Michael Curtiz continue in their adventure collaborations, from the swashbuckling The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, or classic tale of Robin Hood. Given how clean cut Flynn was, it’s hard to compare Flynn to anyone today, with Harrison Ford being the closest I can think of. The film’s are pioneers of the modern action film - where we expect limited story for maximum action. Per the Netflix synopsis, Dodge City allegedly brought back the Western, and given the duo’s involvement in other films throughout the 1930s, I was confident that it was going to be an exciting film; though contrary to the excitement of the aforementioned, I was expecting a lot more.
The story involves the town of Dodge City that’s fallen victim to lawlessness and constant violence, recruiting a new and charismatic Sheriff. Eight years later, this tale would be told in would be better told with one of John Ford greatest films My Darling Clementine, exploring the infamous Ok Corral and Sheriff Wyatt Earp. I’m aware that other towns existed that fell victim to lawlessness; perhaps best explored by HBO’s Deadwood, but as I mentioned in my thoughts on Clementine, one of the most interesting facts behind the battle was that Wyatt Earp implemented a ban on weapons throughout the town, requiring individuals to check them in before entering and thus what we associated with the lawless wild west actually had stricter gun laws than most states in the country.
Back to Dodge, eventually Sheriff Wade (Errol Morris) institutes the same policy, discovering a rapid reduction in violence as a result. Knowing this is the story, and if you’re interested in watching an old movie about it, check out My Darling Clementine or Shooting at the Ok Corral. Dodge City contains fragments of pretty interesting stuff - such as when they actually show a child get killed an an extensive and brutal bar fight.
A big problem is that Errol Flynn doesn’t fit the Wild West role or environment. We can romanticize Nottingham Forest and a man fighting for his princess, or battling pirates shirtless in the Caribbean. A cowboy’s image demands function beyond form, it’s dirty and rough (as I’m writing this I’m thinking of all types of Queer Theory we could apply to these stories, and what it means that these images were and are so popular amongst men, but I’ll save it). The point is that to be a Wild West Cowboy you can’t have a flawless European pencil mustache, perfect haircut, and talk with an English accent. The West’s portrayal has improved in such significant ways that I think Americans specifically would find Dodge City unrealistic and aged, especially against some other incredible films from the period - The Ox Bow Incident or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (released just a year later).
As I’m writing this (I was home for the holidays), my mother has White Christmas on, also directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie contains only about ten minutes of Christmas-related story, bookended into the film, and yet it’s considered one of the greatest Christmas films ever made. Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and that’s just the few of the more popular titles - this guy was one of the greatest directors from the period, with his Young Man with a Horn as one of the most underrated movies from the era.
That’s why I’m surprised that this movie felt so polished and voiceless. I suppose if it’s what brought the western back, it’s wrong to look five or ten years down the line to see what came of it, or to the subsequent films that Curtis would go on to make. Keep in mind that both Captain Blood and Robin Hood came out before this film, so it wasn’t like he was some green director. Perhaps he got burnt out on the genre, and yet a year later he went on to make The Sea Hawk. It leaves me all the more certain that the elements just didn’t work in the environment. I’ll have to check out Errol Flynn’s other Westerns and see how it goes.
BELOW: A ridiculous barroom brawl; one of two great scenes from the film
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