Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
Seen as an important early Western as the genre began to find its feet as Hollywood was starting to accept the genre to be taken seriously. All due to John Ford‘s Stagecoach that took not only a chance with a genre which had taken on the form of period epics of the Victorian era, such as Gunga Din (1939) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). All the basic elements that were refined in the silent era were recycled and reshaped as legends waiting to be retold. So with Stagecoach blowing the dust off the boots and spurs, the reins tightly held in place, the hat sitting a top the gunfighters head, the guns loaded once more, studios had to wake up and react to what was the rebirth of the Western. Warner Brothers delivered Dodge City (1939) in reaction to the tightly written multifaceted drama of misfits and outsiders, with bursts of exciting action.
I have been aware of this film for a few years, but never really took it seriously, it was only when I read about it in Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin I had to get hold of the film and watch it. With stronger foundations of how the history of the West was written and perceived at the time – the Myth of conquest’s seen here in terms of progress, the United States on the up after the Depression.
The film opens up in spectacular and very idealised. A steam train pounding freshly laid tracks that are about to meet at the join between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, complete with the nailing of the golden spike being hammered in completing the line. Before we see the that much forgotten, much passed spike there is a really nice piece of golden age Western cinema, a race between a stagecoach and a steam train. Nature vs. technology, progress out racing what has gone before. Its breathtaking to watch and daring to capturing on film, fair enough there was some camera trickery with the help of a rear-projection, however you can see that it was carefully staged, pushing both horses and the train out on location. You could imagine such ill-fated races occurring all over the country, as riders wanted to prove their relevance in an ever-changing country. Ultimately the train wins the race as it makes its way to the unnamed towns of wheels that have followed the lines production. All of this celebration even before we have met Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in his first western role, a position that actors were all getting ready assume and have fun with in the coming decades, at this point it’s all still to come.
We meet him at his two sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) out near free-roaming buffalo, acknowledging the effect of their hunting on Native American’s, which leads him to lead a sheriff straight to Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen who are too casual about it all. Of course there is little that can be done without a jail or a court, law is still a few years off reaching this part of the world, it’s an idea that can be easily escaped on horseback. Hatton is not yet ready to assume the role of law. He’s far happier wandering from job to job, bringing with him his own legend, originally from Ireland, fighting in Cuba, before the Civil War, he’s lived quite the life before hunting buffalo for the railroad. A life that most audiences would be envious of, to those around him its hard to believe they are standing in his presence, he’s a living legend whose about to write a few more pages.
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watton and film versions of Wyatt Earp, which I will draw upon later. Before he takes up the badge he has to live his own life before living in the cause of others. Whilst he’s off the town of newly named Dodge is thriving and growing, seen through a humorous and rambunctious montage that depicts numerous saloons, bars, dance halls, this is a boomtown that is really brought to life for a minute or so. We see some of the footage used again, probably a last-minute creative addition which doesn’t detract from the film, however without you wouldn’t see a town in a state of such rapid growth and social collapse. The violence depicted has now become cliché but was brand new at the time of release. With all the violence going in it takes the elders, the businessmen of the town to come together to reach out to Watton to leave his job behind and tame Dodge City.
Watton is already having to tame those who he’s working with, a wagon train and cattle drive combined – not much is made of the wagon train, with more emphasis on the effect that a drunkard is having on the cattle Lee Irving (William Lundigan) trigger happy is unaware of his actions, it takes a near death stampede and a shoot or be shot decision to stop him dead. Watton is the reluctant killer who in turn horrifies Lee’s sister Abbi (Olivia de Havilland) who sees only a killer not a peaceful man doing the right thing. Protecting everyone around him, making the hard decisions that others aren’t prepared to. This decision-making is soon applied to Dodge City after chaotic barroom brawl that leads to Rusty nearly being hanged by Sturrett. It’s an act that Watton can’t be ignored. He has to assume the role of law which was taken on and abused by Sturrett. Bringing me back to the Wyatt Earp connection, a reluctant lawman whose brought out of retirement to slowly bring Dodge in line with the rest of the country, wanting to be civilised as the East. Bringing back settlers who we learn had been leaving in their droves before. He single handidly transforms the town into a safe, profitable and safe place to live, gun control and a shed load of laws which we see going to the extreme at times.
I have to mention the role of Abbie Irving who began as a grieving woman to taking on a prominent role at the local paper. Yes its the women’s gossip column, but its a woman in the work place, communicating with the community. She’s not a woman to be walked all over, not even Watton until he has won her heart somethings never change. Looking at the other “prominent role” by Ann Sheridan as barroom singer Ruby Gilman whose connected to Sturrett, but her character is not really developed to be of any real consequence or danger to Watton who doesn’t even meet her. That’s the only real flaw in a Western that is brimming at the seams with ideas that are either explore or enjoyed. It’s having a lot of fun, you can see cast all are, and all in technicolor too, creating some classic imagery that has been repeated ever since.
Looking back at the film over a day later I can see a film with so much to talk about, I could be writing for days, I hope I have pinned down some of the main ideas of transformation, progress as well as the division still there after the civil war. The country maybe reunited politically and geographically the links are getting tighter by the passing of the years. Socially and lawfully there’s still away to go. Dodge City is one of the lesser known classics today, yet made during that incredible year of 1939 which transformed the medium and the genre, it can’t be forgotten.