Dodge City: Errol Flynn Goes West

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Dodge City. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Dodge City was one of the highest grossing films of 1939 and the fifth of eight feature films to team up Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

There is the Western genre before Stagecoach and then there is everything that came afterwards. Prior to Stagecoach, the genre was seen as a B movie. In addition to Stagecoach and Dodge City, other big Westerns of 1939 included Union Pacific and Jesse James. When studios realized what they had with the genre, they started casting their A-list players under contract. Who better to lead a Western in 1939 than Errol Flynn? I mean, I could understand the hesitation because he was a leading swashbuckler. Flynn isn’t the type of actor that one might see as leading a Western. If you have Flynn in a film, you cannot not cast de Havilland.

The film starts out in Kansas 1866 as Colonel Grenville M. Dodge (Henry O’Neill) is opening up a new railroad line. It is post-Civil War and the nation is turning its focus to building up the American West. Six years later in 1872, Dodge City is now the “longhorn cattle center of the world and wide-open Babylon of the American frontier – packed with settlers, thieves and gunmen.” Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his gang always seem to avoid facing justice. Enter Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) and the rest is history. He’s arriving with a pair of friends and a group of settlers, including Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland). As soon as Hatton sets foot in town, he sees the anarchy in front of his eyes. People want him to be the new sheriff to no surprise. Hatton initially says no but changes his mind when Surrett kills a kid.

Going back to 1938, producer Hal Wallis was eyeing a Wyatt Earp biopic starring Paul Muni. Obviously, things changed between then and production because Muni had other plans. Meanwhile, Robert Buckner’s script focuses on a fictional cattleman, Wade Hatton, taking the law into his own hands. Of course, Buckner’s script wasn’t without its own commentary on capitalism or women’s rights. Of course, Warner Bros. would also use the film as a way of pushing democracy over dictatorships. Harry and Jack Warner would do anything to spread their anti-Nazism message, even in a Western! Speaking of women’s rights, de Havilland would have preferred to be anywhere other than working on the film. Not only was she not being paid enough but she had to continue putting up with Flynn’s antics.

You might think of them as a clichés right now but this film has everything that makes the Western what it is a stagecoach chase, cattle drive, dances, heroine, shady girl, brawls, etc. The two biggest set pieces by far are the saloon brawl and the train on fire. Of course, this was around the start of the genre really coming to life on screen.  They were no longer the B movies but a genre to be taken seriously. It didn’t hurt that studios were using the Westerns as a way of showing American patriotism during World War II. The film’s scale is ready-made for a director like Michael Curtiz. Studios and filmmakers weren’t doing all that much Technicolor by 1939 but they really put their effort into the film.

In this film, de Havilland’s Abbie Irving holds Flynn’s Hatton responsible for her brother’s death. Interestingly enough, Hatton was supposed to kill him in self-defense. Curtiz opted to improvise during filming and as a result, Hatton saves Abbie’s life from the same cattle stampede that kills her brother, Lee. This comes after Hatton only wounds him in the leg for shooting at Rusty Hart (Alan Hale). In a way, Hatton comes off as better person, resorting to violence only when he has to do so.

The saloon brawl would inspire a similar scene in Blazing Saddles. Not just this but Curtiz would find himself in a similar situation with Casablanca in a moment that would draw a bigger emotional response, seeing as how many refugees were in the scene. In this film, Ruby Gilman (Ann Sheridan) sings “Marching through Georgia” on stage, joined by the Union veterans on hand. Tex Baird (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and his fellow Southerners respond with the chorus of “Dixie.” There are at least 176 extras and stuntmen in this nearly six-minute-long set piece.

Max Steiner handles scoring duties on the film. He really had his work cut out because he had three weeks to compose the film’s score prior to its premiere in Dodge City, Kansas. Anyway, the film starts out strong with a march but then the composer delays the love theme until later in the picture. Steiner’s initial plan was not to score the film’s climatic sequence with the burning train. I can’t help but think about John Williams opting not to score the D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan. With all of the gun shots and other sounds, how would anyone be able to hear the score? It really goes to show that the best composers know when to score a scene and when to let a scene speak for itself without any music. Guess what? The studio had other ideas and music was composed.

Never mind the fact that Steiner went on to compose seven more Westerns starring Flynn, Westerns are still paying homage to his work. Again, films like Stagecoach and Dodge City set the tone for the genre going forward. Say what you will abut other composers of his era but Steiner’s work really defines the sort of musical themes heard in Westerns.

Dodge City is part of a number of Westerns that would define and reset the genre for several years to come.

DIRECTOR: Michael Curtiz
SCREENWRITER: Robert Buckner
CAST: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, and John Litel, Henry Travers, Henry O’Neill, Victor Jory, William Lundigan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams

Warner Bros. released Dodge City in theaters on April 8, 1939. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.