Dodge City

Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan

Director: Michael Curtiz
Released: 1939

Mood: If you just failed massively at something and you want to see a movie so terrible it makes you go “well, at least I’m not THAT bad” or if you have a Western fan in your life who’s pissing you off and you want to watch them suffer.

I was stoked to see Dodge City. For starters, Dodge City (the place) is referenced all the time in Western movies and books. You know, those “that time in Dodge City” remarks that make you think it was where the cool kids hung out. Also, Dodge City (the film) apparently provided much of the spoofery for Blazing Saddles

I also thought that if Errol Flynn was this great swashbuckling leading man, it would bring something exciting to the genre that I’d not yet seen. 

I was wrong.  

Dodge City is a random mess that makes no sense until it’s too late. There are SO MANY PROBLEMS, I don’t even know where to begin. How did Flynn make seven more Westerns after this? Ugh. Anyway, here we go…

movie poster for Dodge City film
Source

I watched Dodge City twice – once by myself, and a few hours later with my boyfriend who had to see this terrible movie I’d been ranting about. I understood the plot a little better after the second viewing, but barely.

Dodge City’s cheesy effects and overacting would be totally fine, if it was entertaining. But the plot is insane – so many characters rammed down your throat in the first 30 minutes, you can’t tell where to focus. Every scene opens with a handful of new faces, some of which you don’t see again for an hour, others you just plain never see again.

Actual quote from my boyfriend, 20 minutes in: “Who the f*ck are these people?”

The Dodge City drinking game would be a shot every time you don’t know who someone is or if you should care.

The costumes are also completely off-key. The fabrics, the styles, the fact that everyone is pressed and shiny-clean… everything is so wrong. Why is Olivia de Havilland rocking velvet skirts? Why are the saloon girls wearing prohibition-era showgirl costumes? 

Here are some of my actual notes:

  • There are way too many people in this movie, I didn’t get a chance to care about them before they started getting shot 
  • Why do all the men sound like 1920s New York gangsters?
  • EVERYONE IS SO F*CKING CLEAN! Like no wear on the leather of the holsters, no dirt or creases on the shirts or hats, it’s distracting
  • Why is his holster around his ribs? Whether he cross-draws or right-hand draws, it’s too high*, it’s literally stuck in his elbow 
  • I’m basically just waiting to see him draw to see how ineffective that holster is
  • OK IT’S SO INEFFECTIVE, he is a right-hand draw, so he has to hike up his shoulder and wrench his body sideways to draw which costs him seconds (* I watched this scene five times on slow-mo to confirm my suspicions)
  • I’m judging that pencil moustache

Dodge City kicks off in 1866, with a train speeding through Kansas, complete with scrolling action on screens behind sedentary actors. That part is fun, in the way that our VFX-loving brains can’t help but grin at old cinematography techniques that must have blown minds at the time.

Dodge City (the place) is about to be declared a city, named after old white dude Col. Dodge (inaccurate). We’re introduced to Wade Hatton (Flynn) and his buddies Tex (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) and Rusty (Alan Hale).

They all seem to be friends with the old white dudes on that train, and briefly mention hunting buffalo to supply the Kansas Pacific Railroad – a clear reference to the real life Buffalo Bill. But nothing else is patterned after his story.

Wade and friends get a man arrested for wasting buffalo on Indigenous land. You start to think that the plot will centre around a fight over hunting and land rights. Nope! No Indigenous people ever mentioned again. This was a random act to introduce the ‘bad guy’. 

For the first 45 minutes I had no idea who the ‘bad guy’ even was. Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) seemed to cause problems, and he had cronies, but he wasn’t that bad compared to other Western baddies. I kept waiting for his Final Boss, the bigger badder guy, but there was none. It turned out Surrett was the bad guy.  

He’s got this clean-shaven face, straight white teeth, smooth hair, and he sounds like an East Coast mobster – it doesn’t quite work. He’s not threatening enough to shake up the squeaky-clean vibe of the whole movie.

Here are more examples of the Dodge City nonsense:

  • Ruby Gilman (Ann Sheridan) is the first female we see and is top-billed, so you think she’s important – nope, she has virtually no bearing on the plot
  • Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) is introduced as an orphaned damsel in the wagon train ‘protected’ by Wade, stuck with her stupid drunk brother; then she’s wrangling a wagon full of schoolchildren (is she a teacher?); then she’s reporting for the local press (what is happening?!)
  • OMG those stampede scenes! The stampede gets stirred up, then we see the steers completely calm even though their wranglers were occupied with the Irving siblings, then those steers are off again in the same stampede patterns (the footage later used mockingly in Blazing Saddles)
  • Literally no reason to buy into the romance; they go from hating each other to non-consensual kissing and marriage without any chemistry
  • You can actually see the discomfort on de Havilland’s face when being kissed – possibly the result of being forced to smooch the STD-riddled taker of child brides?

During one scene between Wade and Abbie, my boyfriend commented, “Worst acting ever.” I said, “Which one?” and he said, “Yes.”

I don’t want to just crap all over an oldschool Western. There are some good aspects of Dodge City. I really liked Wade’s pals, Tex and Rusty. Both actors were funny and enjoyable to watch. 

There’s also a fantastic saloon brawl. That’s something old Hollywood did right – choreographed group fight scenes. There are about 100 dudes brawling, smashing bottles, busting furniture, swinging from the ceiling… even a lasso comes out! This scene was the first and only time I perked up during the entire movie. 

Maybe my whole issue stemmed from the title. 

Dodge City (the place) was a literal who’s who of prominent Wild West celebs: Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh, Bat Masterson, Buffalo Bill. Hell, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday met in Dodge City, and it’s where Doc and Morgan Earp became BFFs! Why didn’t any of those notorious characters make an appearance?   

And this is going to bug me forever: how did Wade fire more than eight shots with his rifle in that train-fight scene without reloading or even cocking his gun? I get that it’s Hollywood, but someone on set must have fired a gun once in their lives. C’mon, people.

If you love old movies and aren’t too concerned about plot, this could work for you. It definitely didn’t work for me.

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