Michael Cutiz Film Shows Men of Character in ‘Dodge City’

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NR | 1 h 44 min | Drama, Western | 1939

Director Michael Curtiz’s film is set in 1866 Kansas, after the Civil War has ended. Armies have disbanded and the long, slow, difficult work of building the West begins. “Dodge City” is meant to be a crowd-pleaser and please it does, but not without ample hints about why the West’s values must be preserved and not left to crumble under the weight of lawlessness.

Col. Grenville M. Dodge (Henry O’Neill) establishes his new city with a speech that spells out the noble traditions he’d like his town to stand for. Threatening his vision is ruthless cattle baron Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) who draws men like flies away from their families and into a web of vice and violence that he wants to eventually spread across all of Dodge.

"Dodge City"
(L–R) Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), Yancy (Victor Jory), and Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) in “Dodge City.” (MovieStillsDB)

So Dodge finds himself a lawman in the principled, personable cattle agent Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn). Soon, seemingly meek folk join this new war against Surrett’s greasy network of greed. They include Hatton’s aide Rusty Hart (Alan Hale), newspaperman Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) and Hatton’s love, Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland).

A Shining Cast and Crew

In his first scenes, Flynn dispels doubts audiences may have over his skill in switching from sword-fighting (his screen staple until then) to six-shooting; he went on to star in several Westerns. Flynn lends his Hatton moral rectitude. In cattle auctions, he isn’t interested in the highest bidder if the bidding isn’t fair. Even his buddies who break the law must endure jail.

Lovely Ann Sheridan is squandered here, cast as a showgirl with little to do and less to say. But de Havilland glows as a woman who lends her man a moral compass when he needs it and righteous support when he wants it. Cabot is brilliant as the vile Surrett and McHugh is endearing as a small man with a big smile and a bigger heart.

"Dodge City"
Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in “Dodge City.” (MovieStillsDB)

Sol Polito’s cinematography captures the old West at its most charming: wide open prairie, masses of cattle on the move, clear blue rivers, and families camping on the trail.

Newspaper headlines, printed town hall notices, and printing ink mark Curtiz’s narrative milestones. To him, editors and reporters aren’t meant to childishly record events but to maturely speak truth to power; when they do, they’re as unstoppable as a train steaming past raiders.

Not Just Light Entertainment

Curtiz’s message on masculinity is subtle but clear. Directionless masculinity, he seems to say, easily falls prey to rowdy revelry. Men like Hatton, who sign up to police towns, with a mission to protect and defend, are as vital as those in government, big business, or the media; without law and order, there would be nothing left to govern, to earn from, or write about.

Curtiz milks the symbolism of trains and railroads. Coaches represent components of civilized society, the haven of “homes, churches, schools” that Col. Dodge dreams of. Dodge City represents “all that the West stands for: honesty, courage, morality, and culture.”

Screenwriter Robert Buckner shows that society’s train is ultimately directionless without the anchoring values of the rail line itself: law, order, fairness, justice. After all, a railroad is so much more than transport.

America’s first transcontinental railroad was more than a logistics lifeline linking the two coasts, it was a fast-track to progress that helped hundreds of thousands of families sink roots in a place and call it home instead of drifting to new pastures every season. Not for nothing was it declared an achievement of Lincoln’s presidency. It united the nation after a divisive war and spurred cultivation of massive tracts of new farmland.

"Dodge City"
Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh, L) and Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in “Dodge City.” (MovieStillsDB)

A railroad crawling into a prairie town is almost an admission of that town’s willingness to tame itself. Starting out, Dodge City operates as a metaphor for any country that sanctimoniously decries injustice, corruption, and crime but shies away from paying the price by arming and authorizing upstanding citizens to defend the defenseless against willful offenders.

To Curtiz, big businesses aren’t evil, only their greed is. Upright men who trade with Surrett are businessmen, too, but their fair play ensures there’s enough wealth and prosperity to go around. In a mob, however, anyone can be proclaimed guilty, seized, and hauled to a hanging, as Rusty discovers when he wanders into Surrett’s seedy saloon. Only civilized societies demand investigation, evidence, and a fair trial.

Hatton shows that the law doesn’t exist to quench the thirst of the mob. Only a law that respects due process will, eventually, be upheld. Justice’s journey to the truth must be a measured run, not a sprint. Hurried justice, built on hearsay and heated assumptions is merely injustice in disguise.

"Dodge City"
Lobby card for “Dodge City” directed by Michael Curtiz. (MovieStillsDB)

You can watch “Dodge City” on Vudu, Prime Video, and Apple TV.

‘Dodge City’
Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Release Date: April 1, 1939
Rated: 3 stars out of 5

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