Out west law and order is in short supply. Particularly in Dodge City, the cattle town overrun with drunken cowboys brawling in the streets and gunfighters terrorizing decent folks at the behest of ambitious criminal Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot). What the city needs is a lawman. Someone brave, rugged and decent like dashing cowboy Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) who clashed with Surrett over a crooked cattle deal. At first Wade does not want to get mixed up in local problems, particularly since he still regrets upsetting beautiful pioneer girl Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) who holds him responsible for the death of her drunken, troublemaking brother. But harrowing events soon spur Wade to take action. As sheriff of Dodge City he wins Abbie round and sets out to take down Surrett and his hired guns once and for all.
Would that be Wade Hatton or Wyatt Earp? For indeed Dodge City delivered a highly fictionalized account of the exploits of the most famous lawman in the American West. While lacking the poetry of John Ford's definitive take on the Wyatt Earp story, My Darling Clementine (1946) or the psychological depth of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Dodge City remains unquestionably the most fun interpretation of this oft retold story and carries much the same scope and visceral impact as the more contemporary Tombstone (1993). Michael Curtiz made this western in much the same breakneck style as his swashbucklers with Errol Flynn. Their previous outings set the template for all the action movies that followed in Hollywood and Dodge City continued in much the same full-throttle vein while paying lip service to familiar western themes.
The film opens on a scene that illustrates the difference between Curtiz and Ford as filmmakers: a spectacular race between a horse -drawn carriage and a steam train. It is a sledgehammer subtle metaphor for the erosion of the old West and in case you missed it, Colonel Dodge (Henry O'Neill) comes right out and says so. With breathtaking Technicolor photography by Sol Polito, a thundering Max Steiner score and set-pieces to set pulses racing, Dodge City encapsulates bombastic blockbuster filmmaking circa 1939. Though grandiose in scale the story is pure pulp fiction rather than Ford's epic myth-making, told in strokes as broad as an old silent era horse opera or Victorian stage play with cute orphans, widows in peril, beautiful school marms, hair-raising escapes and dastardly villains that do all but twirl their moustaches. Nevertheless, Curtiz's fluid camera-work soaks in the sumptuous sets and costumes and he stages some rip-roaring set-pieces. Footage from this movie was recycled in B-movies for decades after including the most spectacular and destructive bar room brawl in screen history.
Away from the mayhem, the film touches upon a standard western motif: the civilizing of the west, albeit through violent means. Where Ford lamented what America lost along the way, here the tone is more celebratory as Wade gradually phases out guns, gambling and alcohol in Dodge City and paves the way for decent working folk to move in. This does not mean Curtiz sets out to sugar-coat the taming of the west. After first refusing the job of sheriff, Wade takes up arms after a child is killed. Abbie's idiot brother causes a cattle stampede and ends up trampled to death. Lovable comedy sidekick Rusty (perennial second banana Alan Hale) is almost lynched by an angry mob. Headed by the charismatic and photogenic re-teaming of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, a fine ensemble cast deliver lively, engaging performances in spite of supporting player Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams bearing an uncanny resemblance to President George W. Bush. He's just as dim but more likeable. Flynn worried audiences would have a tough time accepting him in a western but the film proved one of the biggest hits of its year and paved the way for his roles in more ambitious westerns like Rocky Mountain (1950). Meanwhile, Dodge City goes to amusing lengths to explain away Flynn's accent although historically more than a few cowboys had English accents. Contemporary viewers may take more issue with the film's overt sexism that casts Abbie as headstrong, inept and much like the West itself, something to be tamed. However, the film is amiable enough to overlook such lapses and climaxes with the exciting gunfight aboard a fiery runaway train by which all subsequent action movies would be judged.