The year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”
It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.
Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.
Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.
Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.
In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.
What follows just might be one of the finest brawls ever, spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.
What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.
Finally, a child (Bob Watson) is lost; it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.
It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.
In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.
Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.
It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.
De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.
However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.