When The Dalton's Rode – 1940

Brothers against the "system"

Most of When The Dalton's Rode is fitted together like a well-oiled machine, with the familiar plot of a wronged family being driven off their land by a large and corrupt syndicate that manipulates the "system" against them. In this case, early into the film the conspiracy is led by Rigby (Harvey Stephens) who uses a team of crooked surveyors. When one of the surveyors gets accidentally killed in a confrontation over property border lines, the Daltons are indicted for murder, and additional crimes are invented to help "justice" on its way, including the putting together of a tainted jury pool.

Kay Francis (who gets second billing) is a telegraph operator in the film in the local town. When we first meet her she is trying to count cattle boarding a railway car when a grinning Randolph Scott (who gets top billing) comes along and immediately tries to flirt with her, messing up her arithmetic. However, neither Scott or Francis, who are supposed to be our main stars, play Daltons. The real story (and run time) centers on the four Dalton brothers (Brian Donlevy, Stuart Erwin, Broderick Crawford, Frank Albertson), plus "Ozark Jones” (played by Andy Devine), a family friend who chooses to run with them from the law because he has too many girlfriends and he's being drawn inexorably closer to the marriage altar.

The stunt work is first rate in this film, and there's a lot of leaping onto speeding stagecoaches, trains, gunplay and also an incredible "Yat Canutt" stunt in which a cowpoke falls beneath a running team of stagecoach horses, slides on the ground between them and then under the carriage itself, grabs ahold while the back end passes overhead, then uses it to climb up the rear and confront the rather surprised driver (a variation on this is one of the famous stunts in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Randolph Scott isn't one of the battling Dalton brothers (and they really do battle just about everyone in the fight to stay free until the "frame" on them is exposed), instead Scott is a country lawyer who gets drawn into the Dalton's plight (he was a childhood family friend) and also because he's got a crush on Kay Francis's character who happens to be engaged to one of the Daltons (played by Broderick Crawford, who isn't billed until the second title card, but actually has the "real" main role in the film as the leader of the brothers). The Kay-Randolph love affair is a side-issue to the main plot and advances faster than the stagecoaches: they meet and next thing you know they're telling each other "how're we going to break it to Bob? (Crawford)?"

Well, Bob's got other things on his mind with everyone hot on his and his brother's trail. When young brother Emmett (Frank Albertson) gets captured and is to be lynched by a frenzied mob driven on by Rigby, Randolph Scott's attorney finally gets to do something physical and uses a team of horses to rescue Emmett from the mob and deposit him to the town jail where he should be safe from lynching, but lo and behold, the rest of the Daltons are actually already there, hiding. They barricade the jail to the lynch mob outside, and a phone call comes through which Andy Devine (as Ozark) answers, and the call is for the Sheriff. Devine looks over his shoulder and says "he's tied up right now" because, yes, he's literally tied up.

The mob is told by Rigby that "the sheriff won't shoot anybody" (implying to the audience the Sheriff is on on his crooked schemes) and they finally break into the jail, expecting to find one Dalton, instead there's four and they're all very well armed.

Non-stop Action

Humor and the stunt work (and the frequent gun battles) make When The Dalton's Rode a mostly non-stop action film. The Daltons are chased on horseback about as often as a modern crime film has car chases, and the stunts keep topping the previous stunts until finally they escape a posse by jumping from a ridge onto the top of a speeding train. When they realize the train is full of deputies searching for them, the brothers commence to stealing a railcar full of horses and then begin leaping off the train one by one while on horseback, with the final Dalton on horseback leaping from the train while on a bridge over a river.

Are the Daltons crooks? The film initially makes it look like they’re a wronged band of brothers who are barely one step ahead of wrong-headed law, but a montage of newspaper headlines and quick sequences of robbery gives the audience a brief but alternative view. When one Dalton brother complains to Bob (Crawford) that “this ain’t right” Bob replies “Nothin’ ain’t right no more,” and Bob puts it even more succiently earlier when a judge demands “this community is going to learn to obey the law,” and Bob retorts “Why should we obey laws that are twisted to serve the needs of thieves and liars?” To make the case even clearer for the audience about where our sympathies should lie, during the mob sequence, the mob pushes the sweet-faced Ma Dalton (Mary Gordon) down into the dirt.

"Funny how things get twisted, ain’t it?" Says Bob near the end when confronted with the way the carnage has piled up in the Daltons’ wake and pushed him into a situation where he’s ready to kill "his only friend in the world" played by Scott, who, incidentally, has found conclusive proof of how the Daltons were originally wronged. But, Bob can’t stand it that Kay Francis and Scott are now together and she won’t run away with him to South America.

When The Dalton's Rode is mostly about the joy of outfoxing the humorously incompetent deputies and sheriffs that are chasing them and is often in the same spirit of "fun" as a newer film like Smokey and the Bandit. It also features, in a mostly unobtrusive way, a pro forma love story between the honest lawyer (Scott) and the beautiful telegraph operator (Francis). But in the details, When The Dalton's Rode shows how the innocent suffer from corrupted law, and that violence, however justified initially, pursued over time becomes brutality.

The film's live by the sword, die by the sword sense of justice is best shown by how hillbilly lothario Ozark Jones is undone when he tries to hide from gunfire at the door of a shop where one of his wronged girlfriends happens to be working, forcing him back out into the street to face a hail of bullets.

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Original Page September 7, 2023 | Updated October 17, 2023