Dakota the Movie
Friday, December 2, 2011
Hollywood’s westerns have mostly ignored North Dakota, but an exception was “Dakota,” a John Wayne western that premiered on this date in 1945. Even then, all the action happened on the eastern edge of the territory – In the heart of the Red River Valley.
Wayne plays a character traveling north on the Red River from a dock at Abercrombie aboard craggy riverboat captain Walter Brennen’s small steamboat. Accompanied by love interest Vera Ralston, Wayne runs afoul of the bad guys who are trying to run the town of “Fargo on the Prairie” – or as the movie’s trailer boasts, “the toughest spot this side of Hades!” The villains are plotting to burn out Fargo’s honest wheat farmers and make it appear to be the work of Indians.
Wayne’s character is described in florid B-movie hyperbole as the “wildest, gambling fighting fool west of the Mississippi.” He manages to rally the farmers to foil the schemes, after a series of chases, fist-fights, shootings and a spectacular prairie fire all captured in black and white and running 90 minutes.
During a “Dakota” special showing at the Fargo Theater in the 1990s, the audience applauded with approval every time Fargo was mentioned. We don’t know which North Dakota theaters played the movie in 1946, but one might surmise that the reaction was similar.
Today, “Dakota” can be found on some Internet sites that feature rare films, and it has shown on cable’s TCM. Made during the Duke’s early Republic Studio years, Dakota carries an odd charm and has enough faint brushes with actual historical fact to make it interesting to watch.
Historically, the real Fargo was indeed referred to as “Fargo on the Prairie” when it was spanking new and headquarters to the Northern Pacific Railroad. Its dirty eastern neighbor, mere blocks away, was called “Fargo in the Timber.” There, the tents and shanties haphazardly reclined on the Red River banks and the residents were noted to be tough, hard drinking men and loose women. In fact, the seedy squatters of “Fargo in the Timber” were rousted out of their dwelling by soldiers from Fort Abercrombie in 1872.
As in the movie, steamboats were common on the Red in the late 1850s through the 1870s. The Red River Valley’s Hard Red Spring wheat was an ideal frontier crop that preceded the area’s diverse agricultural output of today. But the wheat field arson in the movie storyline is pure Hollywood.
So, if you have the opportunity to watch “Dakota,” remember that fantasy trumps fact when you visit “Fargo on the Prairie” – the toughest spot this side of Hades.
Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark
Fargo North Dakota: From Frontier Village to All America City (2000) Heritage Publications
Engelhardt, Carroll (2007) ” Gateway to the Northern Plains: Railroads and the Birth of Fargo Moorhead”, University of Minnesota Press