Getting out of Dodge

It was late. I couldn’t sleep. And, separately, I’ve been on the search for westerns lately. So late at night, early in the morning, really when I couldn’t sleep, I found the 1939 classic Dodge City. Let’s dive in!

The post-war Kansas setting trades on the pioneering west, cattle ranchers, big money, boom town, the legendary ruthlessness of Dodge City and a postbellum hot point. Also, there’s bad guys and the law. And it all starts because of this first shot:

The iron horse has arrived. The railroad has just crept into western Kansas, and destiny made this is a vital and valuable and rowdy national crossroads:

After watching some old men sit on the train and set all of that up with some only-slightly stilted exposition, we get into the open plain, and our first glimpse of our hero, that notable Cary Elwes lookalike, Errol Flynn:

This is Flynn’s first western. And he was a bit self conscious about it, and you can feel it in places. Here he was, the Tasmanian who acted with an English accent playing an Irish cowboy up out of Texas. The character, Wade Hatton, rode with J.E.B. Stuart during the war, so that part fits well. The man could ride a horse.

He’s facing off in a friendly conversation with the bad guy, here:

Bruce Cabot has 110 credits on his IMDb record. He’s playing Jeff Surrett, a rancher who runs the town. This little conversation isn’t about cattle, but about buffalo, and murdering the natives. Surrett gets arrested, and vows his revenge. So, really, this is all preface. In the background, above there’s Yancy, who is the big heavy. Bruce Jory was a success on screens both big and little. He appeared in projects from Gone With the Wind to Mannix. He also taught acting at the University of Utah. There’s still an active scholarship there in his name.

So here we are, a rousing speech from the back of the train, where Col. Dodge (this is a solid likeness, by the way) predicts a thriving city, right here, but what to name it?

Why, one of the other men on the car says, we should name it after the man who made it possible, Col. Dodge! Dodge City it is! (When, in fact, the nearby fort was named after Dodge, and the city took the name from there.)

Here’s a wide shot showing the rousing huzzah at the end of the speech. How can you not love Technicolor?

We flash forward with two more title cards. The rest of the movie takes place a few years on, in a notoriously violent 1872. There’s a montage showing it off. And every clip, gambling, a shootout and so on, in the montage is something we’re going to see again in the natural arc of the movie.

We meet this man and his son. And you’re going to hate the kid immediately.

But then his dad, who is a rancher, dies trying to get paid what he’s owed. It was the bad guy’s henchman that shot him down. So now you feel bad for the little boy:

That’s Bobs Watson, of the famous Watson family. He had an entire baseball team’s worth of siblings who appeared on screen. Bobs acted for 60 years, his last credit was in a Perry Mason movie. He was also a Methodist minister.

Oh, finally, a love interest.

Olivia de Havilland’s character is coming up from Texas with her brother to live with an aunt and uncle. They’re making the move with Flynn’s character, Wade Hatton, who is bringing up cattle to sell. On the way the brother, bored and drunk, gets killed by Hatton. There’s a shootout-in-self-defense and then a longhorn stampede. So you know she’s the lady, and we see her brother get killed by the hero. It’s an awkward start. They even talk about it later, unconvincingly.

Meantime, there are the occasional gorgeous shots like these. I always like to imagine a director or a cinematographer came onto the set that day, saw this and said “Get some horses in there. I’m about to frame the best atmospheric shot of the film!”

Our hero and his sidekick make it into Dodge City. And they’re immediately stuck up.

It’s that kid again. And he’s running a protection racket: a quarter to watch your horse. That’s about five dollars a horse today. And our hero, who is cash rich and sense-poor, gives him a dollar. The kid looks at it, agog. That’s about $21 today.

Also that boy is from the future. There were no rubber bands in 1872.

A bit later we meet the local newspaper editor, in one of this film’s many great three-shots.

Just outside, the editor runs into the bad guy. The Jeff Surrett character is played with a bit of villainous charm, a sort of “It’s only evil if you don’t look at it from my point of view,” or an atmosphere of “It’s only bad if I don’t get my way,” and a strict “Don’t ever write with your eyes closed” sensibility:

They use the paper nicely to advance the plot: Hatton, having seen that boy killed as a by-product of a shoot out, decides to honor the town fathers’ request and put on the sheriff’s badge. He’s going to clean up this place.

And that editor’s paper has never met a slammer it didn’t like. At least we get different shots. There’s a paper on a desk in the newspaper’s office:

Here’s one coming right off the press:

This isn’t dummy copy, but it is repetitious. And the ad that keeps appearing for carriages is from a real business, but one in Vermont. Spencer S. Bedard was born Canadian, moved to Vermont and got in the harness and carriage business with a brother. He became a town official, and it looks like he died in 1897. Some 42 years after his death, perhaps his three children, or grandchildren, saw his name in print on the screen. That must have been a surprise.

This last paper, we’re looking over a resident’s shoulder, and the Bedard ad is there for a third time.

There’s also a bicycle ad on the lefthand column. That seems unlikely for a wild 1872 Kansas, but I could be wrong there.

Anyway, Flynn and de Havilland are going on the foodless, pointless picnic trope. They ride out to this place, climb down from their horses, have a few sentences of painful dialog and then decide it is time they head back. It advances the plot, they probably thought to themselves.

This is their fifth movie together. The first western for both. Maybe that’s why it feels like they have, well, the critics call it chemistry, and who am I to argue that point? She was apparently also in a rut with the roles she was receiving. Or maybe that kid with the anachronistic rubber bands has replaced Errol Flynn’s sheriff character with an alien who rips people’s faces off:

Soon after, the newspaper editor gets killed, and she could be a target. When you count her brother, the bored guy Hatton killed at the beginning of the film, the little boy who was dragged to his death by runaway horses … Just knowing this man is a hazard.

Here’s the dramatic finish:

The sheriff is trying to take Yancy out of town to avoid mob justice, but Surrett and his gang chase down the train to break out their man. There is a shootout, and the train catches fire. Then there’s a shoot out on the burning train! It’s a marvelously well done piece, perhaps even more so since we’re talking the 1930s.

If your train is on fire and the good guys are in the next car up, there’s only one thing to do. You get off the train. And if the train is still moving you have to take the plunge and hope that your fellow cowboys, and stunt people, are good horse handlers:

We saw three people escape the burning train this way, each exit more thrilling than the last. This one is the head bad guy and, below, Surrett for a moment has his hands on the saddle and his feet on the ground, pogoing up into the seated position:

Immediately after that Hatton and his sidekick, who escaped the burning train car and worked their way up and over the coal car, shoot and kill all the bad guys. Admittedly I have the advantage of 80 years of hindsight here, but this was, to say the least, a bad tactical move by the bad guys. All three had gotten off the train, and then continued to ride, in parallel, with the still-moving locomotive. Turn around! Live to set up the possibility of a sequel! This is a classic and important film in many ways, but imagine if Surrett escapes, skins out of town and they started teasing the possibility of sequels in 1939!

At the end of the film Col. Dodge returns. He’s grateful that Hatton has saved the city named after him, so now Dodge tries to convince the sheriff to come out and clean up a new burg, Virginia City, in Nevada. But I can’t do that, sayeth the swashbuckler, I have a 17th century British drama to make next. (But he would soon be in a movie set in Virginia City, Nevada, albeit the action takes place a bit earlier.) Also, me and the lady are to be wed and are honeymooning in New York. But then, after a great deal of emoting-upon-eavesdropping from the hall, she comes into the room and says “When do we leave?”

And so they climb on a wagon and head west:

Which is good, it gives us the iconic last shot. They’re literally riding off into the sunset:

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland made eight movies together. A veteran of 61 films and TV shows, a winner of two Oscars, and could count plenty of time on the theatre stage. She was still being asked about her time with Flynn on her 100th birthday.

Edit: She’s 103 today.


  1. Olivia de Havilland is still alive, I think. You’re going to start internet rumors! 😉

  2. How in the world did I make that mistake? Thanks for the catch!