The nearest movies got to the truth (though it wasn't that near)
The Dalton Brothers, who had been shot down in a Coffeyville, Kansas alley in the 1940 Universal classic When the Daltons Rode, and again in the not-quite-so-classic The Daltons Ride Again (Universal, 1945) rode yet again in this made-for-TV epic in 1979. This time the brothers were impersonated by Cliff Potts as Bob, Randy Quaid as Grat and Larry Wilcox as Emmett. The eldest, Ben, who was not anyway a bandit, does not appear this time as he did in 1940 and 1945 but there is Frank, the lawman killed in Oklahoma, and Bill, standing for office in California. Randy Quaid takes the honors while, to be honest, the others are a bit bland.
The movie has that made-for-TV look, with frequent fades-to-black for commercial breaks, and peaks and troughs of action for the same reason, which make it erratic as extended film viewing. The characters also all look as though they are very obviously wearing costumes and they all have 1970s hair (rather like The Long Riders of the following year in that respect). The make-up and wigs of the ‘elderly’ Emmett and Newcomb in 1930s California are frankly very poor. But it’s a big picture with lots of action and has clearly been made by a director and team who like Westerns.
Jack Palance is the real star. He plays an icy railroad detective hunting the Daltons. Railroads are, once again, the bad guys. They are cruel land-grabbers and unscrupulous cheats. We see the evil railroad barons gambling for huge stakes in decadent Chicago clubs. “It’s them damn railroads,” says Bob. “I’m gonna make them pay.” This rather corny device (and dialogue) makes the blatantly criminal and violent acts of train robbery more sympathetic. The Daltons are, after all, the heroes. It’s a standard ploy (see all the Jesse James movies).
The other outlaws, Bitter-Creek Newcomb, Bill Doolin, Blackfaced Charley Bryant, and so on, are satisfactory. Bo Hopkins as 'Billy' is the best of them. Julie Hill and Sharon Farrell provide the love interest. Farrell seems to have modeled her ‘madam’ on Julie Christie’s in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
The ambush and shoot-out at the failed bank raids are slightly reminiscent of the opening scenes of The Wild Bunch or Northfield in Cliff Robertson's Cole Younger picture.
The music won a ‘Wrangler award’ but I found it too falsely ‘comic’. There’s an obviously electric gaslight and they throw rubber strongboxes out of the train but never mind. Details. The Frank Stanley photography is nice. The director, Dan Curtis, loves smoke and dust to the point where it’s sometimes quite hard to see.
It’s generally professionally made, enjoyable and heaps better than many Westerns made for TV, even if not in the Lonesome Dove class.
The thing is that The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang is fiction, sometimes very much so, but it's the closest to fact we have got so far on celluloid and the best cinematic representation of the gang we have had. Of course there are preposterous parts and a lot of it is hooey but they have made an effort and there are at least resemblances between this version and the Ron Hansen book. Furthermore, it’s fun.
What really happened to the Daltons? Well, there were ten Dalton brothers in all.
Louis Kossuth Dalton (great name!), the third born, died in infancy 1862 aged 7. Of the others, the oldest, Ben (Charles Benjamin), born 1853, lived till 1936 and never took any part in the ‘Dalton Gang’ criminal activities. Similarly, Cole (Henry Coleman Dalton), born 1853, who died in 1920 and Littleton Lee Dalton, known as Lit, born 1857, who died in 1942. There was also the youngest son, Simon Noel Dalton, known as Sam, born 1879 (so only 13 at the time of the Coffeyville raid) who died in 1928.
So the 'gang' member Daltons were Gratton Hanley 'Grat' Dalton, born 1861; Robert Rennick Dalton, known as Bob, born in 1869; and Emmett Dalton, born 1871. Of these, Grat and Bob were shot to death in Coffeyville, Ks on October 5th, 1892, while Emmett survived, served a prison sentence, was pardoned and lived on until 1937.
William Marion 'Bill' Dalton (1865 – 1894) joined up with Bill Doolin and his gang after Coffeyville. Bill was shot and killed by a posse at his home in Ardmore, Oklahoma after a bank robbery in Longview, Texas.