Firefly and Western Literature
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“Dodge City” and Firefly

I’ve been watching various “classic” westerns over the winter (which has now transitioned into “mud season”), and recently watched “Dodge City” (1939), a technicolor extravaganza with Errol Flynn as the star, Olivia de Havilland (naturally) as the love interest, Alan Hale as the comic sidekick, and Bruce Cabot as the villain, Jeff Surrett, who has a stranglehood on the town of Dodge City, running the saloon and also controlling the business of buying and selling cattle. Errol Flynn as Wade Hatton makes for a nice change in the western hero type, erudite, witty, well-spoken. Note the following exchange from early in the film, as Wade and Rusty (Alan Hale) leave their horses in the care of a young boy (son of the recently murdered sheriff, although they don’t know that).

Wade: Didn’t Shakespeare begin by holding horses?

Rusty: Who?

Wade: William Shakespeare.

Rusty: I never heard of him. What part of Texas is he from?

Wade: (in a long-suffering mutter) Stratford-on-Avon.

Rusty is a bit of Falstaff character, so the Shakespeare reference makes sense, and I suspect that Wade may have a root or two in King Henry, but it’s been too long since I’ve dipped in the Henriad to be certain.

But, anyway, the setting is shortly after the Civil War, and the townspeople seem mostly union, the cowboys just off the range confederate, and the tension is still high between the two groups, and the bar scene that reveals this reminded me of the opening scene of the “Train Job” episode of Firefly. In that scene, Mal responds to a toast by an Alliance guy to Unification Day. A fight ensues. Other Alliance barflies toss Mal through the (permeable force field) window.

In “Dodge City,” the bargirl singer strikes up “Bring the Jubilee,” the lyrics celebrating Sherman’s march through Georgia. In response, the cowboys, who fortunately have an accordian with them, start singing “Dixie,” and the two groups make a helluva lot of noise, and, of course, a fight breaks out, and, I have to say, it’s one of the finest barroom brawls I’ve seen.

When I first saw the scene, I thought, that’s exactly like Firefly. On a second look back at “Train Job,” the scenes differ in the particulars, a toast rather than a song, and I had misremembered the scene as involving competing toasts (and maybe even competing songs) before the hitting started. I guess we have an exchange of insults rather than an exchange of songs. And, with only Mal and Zoe fighting, we don’t get the large scale barroom brawl. Still, the idea seems very similar–a barroom scene in a post-war world where the fractures that caused the war have not been healed, and where our hero likes to tweak the sensibilities of the winning side.

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