Errol Flynn’s First Western Gave Us the Genre’s Best Saloon Fight

The Big Picture

  • Errol Flynn’s role in Dodge City established him as a Western legend, despite never receiving an Oscar nomination for his performances.
  • The barroom brawl scene in Dodge City is one of the most memorable in cinematic history, capturing the intensity of the Wild West era.
  • While there are other notable barroom brawls in Western movies, Dodge City stands out for its scale, intensity, and symbolic clash between the North and the South.


Regardless of who compiles the list of the most influential actors during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the most iconic actors ever, Errol Flynn will always make the cut. However, as if he were Tom Cruise of the 1930s and 1940s, Flynn never received an Oscar for his memorable performances, not even a nomination. While he had already established himself as a formidable force in Hollywood before he donned the cowboy hat in Dodge City, it’s that particular gunslinging role that reintroduced and cemented Flynn’s legacy among cinematic immortals. As Wade Hatton, Flynn shines bright.

One memorable sequence in the film is its barroom brawl. It was a frenetic, furniture-smashing, fist-throwing extravaganza that kicked off with a spirited performance of the Union victory song, “Marching through Georgia,” by cowboys with northern roots. Not to be outdone, another group countered with “Dixie,” a tribute to the Southern Confederates. What ensued afterward was a mammoth brawl, the largest ever filmed at the time, and still one of the best barroom brawls ever captured on screen.

Dodge City Movie Poster (1939)

Dodge City

A Texas cattle agent witnesses first hand, the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City and takes the job of sheriff to clean the town up.

Release Date
April 1, 1939

Director
Michael Curtiz

Cast
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland

Runtime
104m

Genres
Western

Studio
Warner Bros.


What Is ‘Dodge City’ About?

Directed by Michael Curtiz, Dodge City is loosely based on a true story. The 1939 Western written by Robert Buckner, follows Errol Flynn’s character, Wade Hatton, a cowboy who played a pivotal role in bringing the railroad to Dodge City. Hatton leads a group of settlers to the city, including the captivating Abbie Irving, played by Flynn’s frequent on-screen partner, Olivia de Havilland. Upon their arrival, they discover a lawless town under the iron fist of gang leader Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot). Hatton is initially reluctant to take on the mantle of sheriff, but a brutal act of violence perpetrated by Surret’s men changes his mind. Determined to restore order to the town, Hatton enlists the help of his old friends, Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams), as his deputies. Together, they embark on a daunting mission to rid Dodge City of gang activity, particularly Surret’s reign of terror.

Dodge City was the fifth of eight films that Flynn and Havilland made together. Their partnership is reminiscent of other collaborations of the time, such as that between actor Jimmy Stewart and director Anthony Mann, who also made eight films together in six years before their close friendship soured. John Wayne and John Ford also had a work dalliance that spanned collaborations on a remarkable fourteen films. In Dodge City, Flynn continued his string of heroic roles, portraying the savior sheriff of his lawless new home in the Wild West. Meanwhile, Gone with the Wind star Havilland reprised her familiar role of swooning over Flynn onscreen, a character archetype she often despised and frequently refused to play. Dodge City also featured the talents of Ann Sheridan, known for her roles in San Quentin, Angels with Dirty Faces, and They Drive at Night.

Why Is ‘Dodge City’s Fight Scene a Western Movie Best?

Set against the backdrop of the Civil War that had just ended, Dodge City‘s saloon fight is a mega-spectacle that vividly portrays the fragility of American society in the aftermath of the conflict. The scene opens with a troupe of girl dancers led by an enthusiastic soloist performing the Union’s “Marching through Georgia.” As they sing, patrons join in, echoing the chorus across the saloon. These are soldiers who fought on the winning Union side. In the same saloon, some soldiers fought for the Confederacy. They watch silently, their faces etched with bitterness, as the Unionists’ victory song fills the air. Sick of the Union’s triumphant anthem, a bulky, enraged Southerner named Tex (played by Guinn Williams) lifts his fellow Southerner, a musician, onto the table and commands him to play a tune for “Dixie,” the Confederacy’s war song.

The musician’s bellowing rendition of “Dixie” ignites a vocal clash between the two opposing groups, each side trying to drown out the other. When it appears that the Northerners have the upper hand vocally, Tex smashes a portrait of Union soldiers on the wall. This act of defiance sparks a brawl of unprecedented proportions. The scene unfolds as a long, chaotic melee involving a vast cast of brawlers using anything they can find in the bar as weapons: fists, chairs, tables, beer bottles, and an entire wall. The editing of the scene is masterful, seamlessly intercutting between the violence in the saloon and Alan Hale’s character, Rusty, who is delivering a stuttered Lincoln-esque speech about the need for peace in the saloon’s neighborhood.

When the fight spills over to Rusty, he abandons his peace ideals and joins the fray, coming to Tex’s rescue. Together, they exchange punches with their adversaries amid the chaos. The brawl ends with Tex, who started it all, shooting a hole in the saloon’s rooftop and mocking the Northerners who took the brunt of the beatings. His Southern comrades follow suit, shooting into the roof as they depart from the wrecked saloon.

What Are Other Top Fight Scenes in Western Movies?

While the saloon fight in Dodge City is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular in Western cinema, there are other notable brawls worth mentioning. One such scene is in George Stevens‘ 1953 Western, Shane. It features the titular character, played by Alan Ladd, facing off against his opponents in a rustic saloon. Shane’s adversaries, resentful of his presence, confront him as he tries to enjoy a drink at the bar. Despite Shane’s attempts to make peace, offering his attacker a drink, the man refuses and orders Shane to leave. Shane, in a gesture of defiance, pours the drink he had bought over his attacker’s face, knocking him to the ground with a swift punch.

After allowing the attacker to recover, Shane engages in a fierce exchange of blows, with the attacker getting the worst of it. The brawl culminates with Shane delivering a knockout punch, leaving his opponent sprawled on the saloon floor. However, this victory is short-lived as the attacker’s buddies join the fray. Despite being outnumbered, Shane fights valiantly, delivering his signature hard punches generously to each of his opponents. Just when he seems overwhelmed, Joey, the young boy under Shane’s protection, calls upon Shane’s buddies who are next door for help. Shane’s friend’s unexpected intervention evens the odds, and together they teach the bargoers a lesson they will never forget. One of the most memorable moments in the brawl is the sound of a loud cracking punch as little Joey bites down on a peppermint, punctuating Shane’s fist punches against his opponent. This image perfectly captures the raw intensity and chaotic nature of the barroom fight. No wonder George Stevens’ Shane earned six Academy Award nominations, with Loyal Griggs‘s work winning in the Best Cinematography category.

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“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”

Other notable bar fights include John Wayne’s chivalrous character fist-fighting a crooked federal agent over the beautiful Marlene Dietrich‘s character in The Spoilers. It is a bare-knuckle annihilation of the agent as dazed patrons watch with bated breath. There are also hilarious bar fights, such as Terence Hill‘s portrayal in My Name is Nobody, which features a magic-like gun-slinging performance. In more recent times, Seth MacFarlane‘s 2014 Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West has an exceptionally hilarious scene where two characters engage in a mock fistfight in the middle of a Dodge City-like barroom brawl while shouting, “We have got our own thing going on over here!” Similar to Dodge City‘s singing showdown, Michael Curtiz’s other film, Academy Award-winning Casablanca has a scene pitting French soldiers against German soldiers in a bar. In the scene, German soldiers start to sing their “Die Wacht am Rhein”, a military song that was popular among the Nazis, to which French soldiers counter by drowning them out with their national anthem, “La Marseillaise”. One can only imagine that the inclusion of this scene is perhaps due to the success of the barroom brawl scene in Curtiz’s earlier Dodge City.

Of course, the aforementioned bar brawls are gun-less. But when it comes to guns in the cinematic Wild West, few barroom brawls can match the intensity of Robert Rodriguez‘s Desperado. Even Quentin Tarantino‘s appeals in the film did not spare him the inevitable destiny with the nozzle of the gun. Another memorable bar fight is featured in the first story in the anthology of the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which Tim Blake Nelson‘s character silences for good a group of patronizing patrons.

‘Dodge City’ Launched Errol Flynn’s Western Stardom

Errol Flynn as Wade Hatton in Dodge City (1939)
Image via Warner Bros.

According to the film history book, The Films of Errol Flynn by Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer, and Clifford McCarty, Errol Flynn was worried about taking on the Western genre, fearing that audiences would not accept him. Nonetheless, Dodge City was a great success and paved the way for the actor’s legacy in the Western genre. Flynn went ahead to make a total of nine Westerns, among them, Virginia City, They Died with Their Boots On, Rocky Mountain, and an episode of the television series, Playhouse 90. Errol Flynn is an undeniable icon of cinema, and his role in Dodge City cemented his status as a Western legend. Despite his lack of Academy Award recognition, Flynn’s charisma and undeniable talent shone through in every performance.

The barroom brawl in Dodge City remains one of the most memorable cinematic brawls, capturing the raw intensity of the Wild West era. Flynn’s portrayal of Wade Hatton, the reluctant sheriff who tames a lawless town, is a testament to his versatility and ability to embody both heroic and flawed characters. And Dodge City serves as a gateway to his Western cinematic achievements. While other Westerns have featured memorable barroom brawls, Dodge City stands out for its sheer scale, intensity, and the symbolic clash between the North and the South.

Dodge City is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.

Watch on Amazon Prime

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