Bob Dalton (Broderick Crawford) is a lawman who convinces family friend Tod Jackson (Randolph Scott) to defend local ranchers against land grabs by an evil corporation, who has hired Rigby (Harvey Stephens) to intimidate sodbusters. Because it is a movie, Bob is engaged to good girl Kay Francis, who can't resist the respectful advances of the better-looking Jackson. Squeaky-voiced Andy Devine is a comic relief dufus.
Inevitably, the Daltons collide with Rigby's men, resulting in a kangaroo court trial against the Daltons. They turn outlaw and take Devine with them, leaving Scott, Francis, and Gordon behind. Robberies and shootouts ensue.
How others will see it. When the Daltons Rode is mostly obscure today. The movie has less than 500 votes at imdb.com, and the user rating of 6.6 out of 10 shows only grudging admiration from viewers. Those who have seen it are classic movie fans, curious to see another outing from Scott, Devine, Crawford, or Francis. The typical user review regards it as entertaining but over the top, as well as bad history.
How I felt about it. Hollywood biopics typically show only fragments of truth, and so it is with When the Daltons Rode. Most of the characters are fictional, but it is true that the Daltons rode circa-1891; that Frank, Grat, Bob, and Emmett were brothers; that Frank died first, as a lawman; and Bob and Grat were killed in a Coffeyville, Kansas bank robbery.
Emmett dies in the movie but survived in real-life. He went to prison, found religion, and wrote an autobiography with the suspiciously familiar title "When the Daltons Rode", which had little in common with its namesake film.
The rule of thumb is, we don't care if Hollywood presents bad history as long as it is plausible. It is plausible, for example, that Emmett would die in the same shootout as Grat and Bob. But we roll our eyes at Broderick Crawford's character, and the foolish behavior he shows from Ben's trial onward. The love triangle between Scott, Francis, and Crawford is plot-by-the-numbers. Everything is telegraphed in advance: Scott is smitten, she's Crawford's girl, Francis falls for Scott, Scott is torn between alliances, Francis breaks it off with Crawford, Crawford comes after Scott. It's all been done before, and too many times.
Also too familiar is the plot device of the Dalton brothers becoming bank robbers due to a greedy, corrupt railroad land grab. This was practically the same story as Jesse James (1939), made only the year before. 20th Century Fox could have sued Universal for infringement.
Some of the characters are strictly cinematic, as well, particularly Brian Donlevy as the hothead, Andy Devine as comic relief, Kay Francis as a love interest, and Mary Gordon as Jane Darwell's character from another Fonda movie, The Grapes of Wrath, released a few months before. Devine would be acceptable as a sheriff's sidekick, but who can buy him as a gun-toting bank robber? Or as the middle of a love triangle with two beautiful and jealous women?
Scott is lost in the all the action and shooting. Mostly, he just stands around. Admittedly, this is a shrewd strategy, if he wishes to survive long enough to wed Francis, but it would seem to belong to a different movie. One that involves Francis but not Scott, the hero in countless 'B' westerns over the ensuing years.
When the Daltons Rode was director George Marshall's follow up to his best known western, Destry Rides Again. The difference between the two movies (Donlevy does appear in both) is the writer, Harold Shumate instead of Felix Jackson. Shumate worked fast, and that kept him employed in the film industry in the absence of consequential talent.
What When the Daltons Rode does have is some great stunts, including one by Yakima Canutt which has him traversing a moving wagon from below. Don't try that one at home.