Swashbuckler Errol Flynn seems out of place in this post-Civil War western. He’s too dapper and refined to look comfortable in a cattle town. Playing a new sheriff cleaning up the riff-raff in a plot stolen by Mel Brooks for his western spoof Blazing Saddles, Flynn loses all his vitality trading the rapier for a six-gun. No matter. Flynn carries on effortlessly, breezing through his scenes with atypical whimsy while director Michael Curtiz stages masterfully crafted set pieces around him. The barroom brawl sequence is a hoot, employing hundreds of stuntmen and craggy character actors throwing each other through windows and smashing all manner of chairs, bottles, and tables over each other’s heads—instigated by a dueling song between North and South war veterans as a lively warm up for Casablanca‘s famous “Marseille” number. The romance between Flynn and pretty waif Olivia de Havilland plays out with surprising dramatic tension, having Flynn’s sheriff kill off her no-good brother during a stampede. And even though Curtiz seems a little lost knowing what to do with large groups of extras when they’re not fighting (he mostly just clutters up the frame with them), he’s an expert at milking suspense for Dodge City‘s entire running time. It’s a good thing, too—Flynn’s casual performance is helped by Curtiz’s ability to keep his star under constant threat from well-drawn villains (big heavy Bruce Cabot is square jawed and smug; character actor/sidekick Victor Jory is the epitome of dumb, single-minded badness) and from civilization run amok (random gunfights popping up all over; children getting dragged through the street tied to horses). While the climactic chase aboard a speeding train (on fire!) feels a little rushed, Dodge City is a well-crafted and perfectly capable western. Lacking the artistry of pictures made by Ford, Hawks, or Anthony Mann, it’s a B-picture made with an A-cast and, like Flynn, active and surprisingly resilient.
The Technicolor doesn't hold up on this restoration of Dodge City, which is littered with imperfections and jarring color shifts. The mono sound is surprisingly decent and clear. Max Steiner would be happy: his corny yet engaging score is given the proper amount of heft.
Leonard Maltin's "Warner's Night at the Movies" line-up offers an intriguing mix: a newsreel fearfully regarding Hitler's conquest of Europe and the early days of World War II; a Curtiz-directed revolutionary war short starring Claude Rains that functions as wartime propaganda; a scribbled together Tex Avery cartoon; and a trailer for The Oklahoma Kid, starring a miscast but game James Cagney as a cowboy hero and Humphrey Bogart as his sideburned, scowling nemesis. Cagney not only gets to kill Bogart in the trailer, he adds insult to injury by throwing a glass of water in his face first. The Dodge City featurette highlights the popularity of westerns at the time, and how every major star (including the likes of Flynn and Cagney, who had no business in spurs and riding chaps) wanted to star in them. It also spends ample time discussing the great character actors who fill out the supporting cast, particularly the rodent-faced Victor Jory (best known as the nasty foreman in Gone with the Wind and occasional good guy turned bad Bruce Cabot (he was hero Jack Driscoll in King Kong before old age coarsened his looks and made him more ideal for baddies).
Dodge City is a surprisingly effective and reliable warhorse, and the miscasting of Errol Flynn doesn't distract from the many great set pieces.