DARK COMMAND (1940)

   Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Gabby Hayes, Raoul Walsh (director)
   Republic Studios was known primarily for making low-budget B Westerns, but it did occasionally have a major success. At its release, Dark Command was the largest budget movie Republic had made to date. It was also nominated for two Academy Awards and had a major director, Raoul Walsh. It was Wayne’s and Trevor’s next movie after Stagecoach (1939) and also featured B Western steadies Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes. While Hayes played his usual character, Rogers showed he could act out of character—and he doesn’t sing in this film. Dark Command is the story of a Kansas schoolteacher William Quantrill (renamed Will Cantrell for some reason) who becomes a Southern partisan ranger during the Civil War. Will Cantrell (Pidgeon), in love with the banker’s daughter, Mary (Trevor), is frustrated with his lowly position in life. He runs for town marshal. Unfortunately, at about the same time, Bob Seton (Wayne) comes to town, drifting in with Doc Grunch (Hayes) from Texas. Seton is also a frustrated young man, seeking his way in the world. He, too, is smitten by the charms of the banker’s daughter, and he, too, runs for marshal. Though Cantrell is heavily favored, Seton wins the hearts of the townspeople as well as their votes and becomes the new marshal. As a result, Cantrell becomes bitter and vows to rise to the top and run Kansas no matter what it takes. When Mary’s younger brother, Fletch (Rogers), gets in trouble for shooting an unarmed man, Cantrell takes advantage of the situation and raises a band of toughs who intimidate the jurors into declaring the boy innocent. Mary, not knowing of Cantrell’s strong-arm tactics, marries him out of gratitude. The sheriff now looks foolish. The Civil War begins, and Cantrell’s men begin wearing Confederate uniforms and raiding the countryside. Fletch and Mary are with him. Just before the legendary sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, Seton convinces Mary and Fletch of Cantrell’s perfidy, and they flee with Seton to warn the town. The burning of the town and the death of Cantrell end the film. Mary now is free to marry Seton. Thus, Claire Trevor and John Wayne marry and head south in two consecutive movies.
   Dark Command is surprisingly complex. Each main character is well developed. Symbolic characters appear at key intervals. Cantrell’s mother (Marjorie Main), for instance, serving as Cantrell’s conscience, constantly upbraids him. (Ultimately, at his darkest moment, he kills her.) The film also bypasses politics. Good people as well as bad are on both the Northern and the Southern sides. Dark Command was nominated for two Academy Awards.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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