John Wayne stars as John Devlin, a gambler who, with his new wife, Sandy (Vera Ralston), moves to North Dakota hoping to cash in on the land boom created by increasing railroad expansion. On their trip west, they met two swindlers, Bender and Collins, (Ward Bond and Mike Marzurki) who have been pillaging farms and driving the farmers out of the territory. The two crooks steal John and Sandy's savings, a dangerous riverboat chase ensues, and the criminals make a clean getaway. In a desperate attempt to get back his savings and see justice prevail, Devlin joins the wheat farmers on a heated range battle against Bender, Collins and their gang. The action is fast paced and thrilling ending in an exciting conclusion that includes a daring fight to the finish. Walter Brennan also stars in this fast-paced, action packed western.
I grew up watching westerns with my dad and it's my go-to genre when I just need something fun to watch. And, while I have a great love for the classics like High Noon, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, I also love the vast number of B-level entries in the genre. Take John Wayne, for example. He made countless classic westerns and more than a few that don't quite earn that distinction, yet still are just as deserving of your viewing attention. 1945's Dakota is hardly the best John Wayne western adventure, but it's perfectly good entertainment and features frequent Wayne costars, Walter Brennan and Ward Bond.
John Devlin (John Wayne) has an eye for marrying his sweetheart Sandy (Vera Ralston) and heading out to North Dakota and snag up some of the valuable lands along the railroad expansion. As a former card shark with a quickdraw, John's got $20,000 in his pocket. On their way to North Dakota, John and Sandy have their earnings stolen leaving them nearly broke and stuck in Fargo. It turns out the crooks who robbed him work for Jim Bender (Ward Bond), the local heavy in town who aims to own as much of North Dakota as possible. Bender has a plot to snatch up the land from local settlers and farmers on the cheap, and the one man who can stop him is John Devlin.
What I think I love the most about a good western is how they don't need to be complicated to be good. Characters embody various archetypes, the stories are familiar retellings of other classic tales, and they don't require over the top production values to stand out. In the world of the western, the simpler the better and Dakota is a very simple western. It doesn't demand much from the audience beyond their attention and in return, the flick provides some good entertainment. It's got action, drama, humor with a lot of good will and heart working for it.
In 1945, John Wayne made two westerns with Director Joseph Kane Dakota and Flame of Barbary Coast. Both are of the same frivolous light-hearted sort of western. Dakota isn't meant to be The Searchers. All it requires from its lead star is to deliver his standard straight-backed heroics while Ward Bond gets to be a devilish bad guy leaving Walter Brennan to pick up the comedy relief as riverboat captain Bounce. In between all these great actors playing to their signature stylings is a fine Vera Ralston. Her Czech accent may be a bit too thick to be convincing as a city aristocrat gal to John Wayne's folksy charms, but the pair manage to make terrific leads and it's nice to see she's more than a simple damsel in distress.
No, Dakota is not the greatest western ever filmed. It wears its lower budget trappings on its sleeves, but it's a nice way to burn 80 minutes of your day. The plot is relatively simple, the characters have just enough depth to make you interested, the action comes swift and fast, and the humor gives the film a lot of heart. Not great, not bad, Dakota is just nice and pleasant relaxation entertainment the sort only a western can provide. John Wayne is certainly known for better and worse films than this one so if you've never given Dakota a shot, now's a good a time as any to see The Duke take to the saddle.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Dakota rides onto Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc comes housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case containing a booklet featuring cover art for other Studio Classics releases. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu and features traditional navigation options.
With a 1.37:1 1080p transfer, Dakota makes a pleasing leap to HD. Not a perfect one, the image is a bit rough around the edges at times, but it's still pretty good. Detail levels tend to fluctuate from strikingly clear to soft and seemingly out of focus. The print sourced for this transfer is in decent shape. There are some stretches with mild speckling and some scratches, but nothing too severe. Greyscale is appreciable and the black and white image does enjoy some striking moments. However, there are a few sequences with blooming whites and crushed blacks that knock the final score for this transfer. For a film of this vintage, it's difficult to complain considering the positives vastly outweigh the negatives here.
Dakota is given a solid and serviceable English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix. Dialogue comes through clearly without any age-related issues or background interference. Sound effects have that nice period canned quality betraying when the film was shot on a soundstage with rear projection versus out on location. Gunshots have that great "ka-pow" quality to them. The score can get a little shrill and rattly at times but isn't anything too terrible or disjointed. Levels are just fine and you shouldn't need to make any adjustment once you have things at a comfortable volume. All around a fine track.
Like most Kino Lorber Studio Classics releases, bonus features are a bit slim, but the commentary track is informative and the collection of trailers is always interesting.
Audio Commentary: Featuring Film Historian Toby Roan, this is a solid commentary that provides some great info about the flick.
Man of the West: (HD 3:01)
More Dead Than Alive: (HD 00:59)
Barquero: (HD 2:36)
The Wonderful Country: (HD 2:56)
The Gunfight At Dodge City: (HD 2:15)
Dakota certainly isn't John Wayne's crowning achievement in the western genre, but it's hardly his worst either. With great performances, some snappy dialogue, solid action and an appreciable sense of humor, Dakota is a nice western that knows how to not take itself too seriously. Kino Lorber has done a solid job bringing this film to Blu-ray with a decent A/V transfer and a worthwhile audio commentary. At the end of the day, I'm calling Dakota as worth a look. Wayne fans should have a great time with it and western genre nuts will want to add it to the collection.