Saturday, 25 August 2012

Dakota (1945)

Dir. Joseph Kane
Starring: John Wayne, Vera Hruba Ralston, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond 

1870. John Wayne is muscular scoundrel John Devlin. The film opens with him eloping with his new wife Sandra (Vera Hruba Ralston), daughter of railroad mogul Marco Poli (Hugo Haas). Devlin’s plan is to head to California and start a new life there. Sandy has other ideas. She has sold her father’s “Gainsboro” for $20,000 and plans to double their money by taking them first to Fargo in the Dakota territory. Her plan is that they can buy land locally, then sell it back at a profit when the railroad is extended from St. Paul. Unfortunately she is not the first person to have such an idea. Local big man Jim Bender (Ward Bond – Bert the cop from It’s a Wonderful Life) is in the process of consolidating his grip over the farmers of Fargo. The large estate owners are burned off their land. The immigrant small homesteaders are conned into agreeing a contract with Bender that will see them forfeit their land to him if the harvest fails. With fire-spreading heavies like Bigtree Collins (Mike Mazurka) at his call, Bender aims to ensure that the harvest will, indeed, fail. The bantering Devlins are a variable that he doesn’t much like having around. 

It’s an odd movie. With its bickering central couple it seems to foreshadow later action-oriented romantic comedies like Romancing the Stone. In that respect is seems quite forward-looking for 1945. It’s a shame that the same cannot be said for its treatment of cultural issues. The homesteaders are all happy-go-lucky thick-accented immigrants with colourful clothing (well, we are told it is colourful: it’s hard to tell in black and white). And the least said about Nicodemus (Nicodemus Stewart), the lazy, feckless black bosun on board The River Bird the better! The comedy is quite forced. An example of Wayne’s ‘witty’ banter comes when he meets a showgirl called Jersey (Ola Munson): “I thought Jersey was a state.” “Sometimes I am.” It doesn’t help that a lot of the accents are all but incomprehensible. Vera Hruba Ralston has a Czech accent that stilts her conversational skills (she, like Sonja Heine of Sun Valley Serenade) was also a pre-war figure skater. The only differences are that Ralston never placed better than seventh, she doesn’t get a chance to show off her skills in the movie, and that Heine was never nominated for ‘Worst Actress Ever’ Golden Turkey Award. Still, she is more comprehensible from what I guess is meant to be the film’s comedy star turn, Walter Brennan’s Captain Bounce. He gabbles away madly at his decrepit steam paddlewheeler. He is terrible. And, by the time Dakota was made, he was also a three-time Oscar winner, having won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1936, 1938 and 1940 (and having been nominated a fourth time in 1941). For a ‘comedy’ I’m not sure there is a single laugh in it.

It is better where it sticks to the action. Within the first ten minutes we have a carriage race through the wooded roads of ‘Chicago’ and a pretty good punch-up on a train with bodies flying over the other passengers. After that point plot starts to get in the way of fisticuffs however. The final melee is a confused maelstrom of gunfire, horses racing by and stage coaches toppling over. It’s hard to tell who is fighting who in the dark. Thankfully director Joseph Kane brings the focus back to Devlin, Bender and Collins before the audience gives up in bafflement. 

There are some good ideas lurking in the background of Dakota. Not surprising when the original screenplay was penned by Carl ‘On the Waterfront’ Forman. For a ‘classic’ Western it makes no bones that the powerful in these frontier provinces got and stayed that way because they were unscrupulous. Even in 1870 the kind of corporate chicanery that seems all too common today was still in operation. Bender has insider information and he intends to profit from it. So too, for that matter, do the Devlins. Unfortnately the film does not know what to do with that premise. It cannot decide whether it wants to be an action movie or a romantic comedy. My gut feeling is that they should have left the comedy behind in Chicago and had John Wayne shoot first and make wise cracks later. 
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What have I learnt about North Dakota?
Dakota features North Dakota before it was a state, when it was just part of the Dakota Territory.This was new land, fertile and cultivatable, and new immigrants to the U.S. came here to grow wheat. These ‘bonanza farmers’ are depicted as having thick accents and colourful native customes intact. Of course, not having much money or English, they were ripe for exploitation by the predatory. The native Sioux could be conveniently blamed for any mishap. 

The rail road was eventually to link the Dakotas to the rest of the nation. Until then those wishing to travel to the new towns on the very edge of the territory like Fargo or Grand Forks would have to take the train to St. Paul, the stagecoach across to Fort Abercrombie, and then head up the Red River by boat. 

Can we go there?
The places featured still exist. Fort Abercrombie has been reconstructed as a historic site. Some 35 miles north up the Red River valley is Fargo. The railroad now does indeed pass through the city, with Amtrak's Empire Builder stopping off between Chicago and Seattle or Portland. One place to visit to evoke those bygone days would be Bonanzaville. Sadly the Pioneer Days event commemorating the crossing of the Red River was last weekend. 

Of course, Dakota was not actually filmed in the Dakotas. It was a cheapy Western churned out to meet demand. The film was shot, unsurprisingly, pretty much entirely on set in Hollywood. One of the few occasions when the action spills off the sound stage is when Vasquez Rocks (just north of Los Angeles) can be seen as the stage coach sweeps into Fort Abercrombie. 

Overall Rating: 2/5

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