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If the South can make a case that the abolitionist figure John Brown was not
a martyr but a maniac, murderer, and traitor, the North can point to the
so-called pro-Southern guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrell or Quantrill
as a bloodthirsty killer and thief, and the trainer of a generation of
criminals (i.e., his followers included Cole Younger and Frank James...and
maybe Jesse James too). The fact is that Bloody Kansas was where the
violence that became our Civil War began, and it lasted there for more than
the four years of the actual war. There are few movies that tackle this
story. SEVEN ANGRY MEN and SANTA FE TRAIL gave us versions of Brown's
story. There is a film called THE JAYHAWKER (with Fess Parker and Jeff
Chandler) about a pro-Southern fighter in Kansas. And there are about four
mentioning Quantrell, though none are totally factual. Most though do touch
on the one event of his career that everyone recalls: the massacre at the
town of Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863. Lawrence was the center of the
abolitionist movement in the state, and it's leading citizen was James Lane,
a particularly violent anti-slavery fanatic who became first Senator from
the state. Quantrell was responsible for ordering the deaths of nearly 150
men and boys, but failed to get Lane (whom he wanted to burn at the stake) -
the Senator managed to hide in the field of corn in the back of his farm.
Quantrell barely survived the war - he was shot in the back, trying to flee
Federal troops in Kentucky where he had gone in a ridiculous plan to reach
Washington and assassinate Lincoln (little did he know someone else had
This film culminates in the attack on Lawrence - but here Quantrell is beaten back, when Seaton (John Wayne) reaches the town to warn the citizens that the guerillas are on their way. In short, DARK COMMAND shows that the sacking of Lawrence was a failure. Regretably it was a success.
Quantrell (here Cantrell) was a teacher at one point of his career, but he was also a thief and murderer before he found he could turn himself into a guerilla chief. His patriotism is still questioned. Southern leaders like General Sterling Price never fully trusted him - they suspected his motives and goals, and did not like the unregimented nature of his followers. Still, however, they let him have his semi-independent command. To be fair the North too could have violent "allies" in their cause. Witness the actions, in 1862, of General John Turchin, who let his Federal troops loot a southern town. Turchin was sidetracked for awhile, but back on the battlefield later in the war.
Keeping in mind,then, that the film does take liberties with the historical record, it remains the best film about Quantrell. It does capture the spirit of sectionalism that rent Kansas society apart, and it does capture the nature of Quantrell and his opportunism. In Walter Pigeon it has an interesting surprise. Pigeon is (with Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone and Robert Young) one of the leading second string leading men at MGM in the 1930s and 1940s, usually in comedies. In his case he also was teamed (by accident, as it turned out) with Greer Garson in a series of films from MRS. MINIVER onward. Here he has one of his rare western roles (another is as the sheriff in THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST with Eddy and MacDonald), and one of his few villains (another would be Morbeus in FORBIDDEN PLANET). He is quite effective - witness the scene when he addresses the jury at the trial of Roy Rogers - a jury he has individually intimidated in a nightrider disguise - repeating the word "pain" again and again. This performance is the central one, though Wayne's Seaton is suitably relaxed and a balance to Pigeon. Roy Roger's young McCloud is a surprise too - as he shows a hurt anger in much of the film. Highly unusual for him. Claire Trevor gives her normal good performance - she has a nice chemistry with Wayne, and also does well with Pigeon. In the support one can name Gabby Hayes, Marjorie Main (ultimately a sad performance, reminding one of her similarly unhappy mother of a monster in DEAD END), and Porter Hall as the stubborn banker father of Rogers and Trevor. Even Raymond Walburn has some funny moments, one as a non-paying customer of Hayes.
Finally, take note that this film is based on a tale by W.R.Burnett. Forgotten by most of the public, he was an above average pulp novelist who gave the world LITTLE CAESAR, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT. Usually he did prototypes of film noir (especially WHITE HEAT), so DARK COMMAND is a pleasant surprise that he could handle westerns as well as crime.
After John Wayne became an A picture star with the release of
Stagecoach a year earlier, Republic didn't know quite what to do with
him. In fact they put him back in some Three Mesquiteer films for a
while. I'm sure it took a little negotiating on his part, but Republic
finally decided to give him an A film under its own banner. Which set a
pattern for his career over the next decade. The Duke would do at least
one prestige film a year for Republic, but Herbert J. Yates would make
just as much money loaning him out to the big studios also.
This is not the story of William Quantrill. In fact like Inherit the Wind where the real life Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan are given pseudonyms, Quantrill here is named Cantrell. He's played quite well by a loan out from MGM, Walter Pigeon.
Pigeon in essaying Cantrell has captured the character of a man desperate to succeed and not particularly caring about what he has to do. His character is conveyed in the scenes he has with Marjorie Main as his mother. When she and Pigeon talk about the family of outlaws they left in Ohio, his background is vividly portrayed. Their words and the way they deliver them give us what Piddgeon's real nature is.
In fact Pigeon was heading towards the height of his career. Next year in How Green Was My Valley and the year after in Mrs. Miniver he was in back to back Best Picture Oscar winners. Not too shabby for that man.
John Wayne gets his third film with Claire Trevor which almost qualifies them as big a screen team as the Duke with Maureen O'Hara. She was in his breakthrough film Stagecoach and Alleghany Uprising with Wayne. Later on she was also in the cast of The High and the Mighty as one of the passengers on that nearly ill fated flight.
The Duke sits real tall in the saddle in his role as Bob Seton, the man who had a host of sayings from Texas. He's got an appropriate acolyte here as well in Roy Rogers who made one of his few departures from his own B western films at Republic. Rogers is Claire Trevor's younger brother in Dark Command with Scottish banker Porter Hall as their father.
Pigeon's ruthlessness is never more graphically demonstrated than when he both defends Rogers in court after Rogers murders a northern man in Lawrence, Kansas with Pigeon as his defense attorney by day. But as a night rider he and his gang intimidate the prospective jurors with the inevitable results.
Look for some good performances by both Gabby Hayes and Raymond Walburn in roles that were tailor made for the talents of each.
The film is directed by Raoul Walsh who gave John Wayne a first chance at stardom in The Big Trail back in 1929. That film flopped for many reasons, but John Wayne eventually made it to the top. Not too many folks in Hollywood get a second chance, but Wayne sure made the most of is. For reasons though that I can't explain, he and Walsh never worked together again. Odd because Wayne was definitely the kind of action star Walsh worked with best.
Although John Wayne is the hero and he's his usual Duke, the film really turns on Pigeon's performance as Cantrell. It's the most complex part in the film and it's a bit of offbeat casting for him. Still I recommend it to John Wayne fans wherever they be.
John Wayne's first "A" film at Republic is a good story carried by a
strong cast. One year after Stagecoach, he still takes second billing
after Claire Trevor in their third of four pairings together. They
worked extremely well together, and remained close friends for the rest
of their lives. Walter Pigeon is given the part of the heavy, Roy
Rogers gives the finest acting performance of his entire career, and
veteran character actors Gabby Hayes and Marjorie Main round out the
cast. Veteran director Raoul Walsh keeps the story moving and gives
emotional depth to the characters that was unusual for Republic films
at the time.
Set in pre-Civil War Kansas, when both Northerners and Southerners were scrambling to settle Kansas and decide its political position on slavery, the story revolves around an uneducated Texas cowboy, Bob Seton (Wayne), who finds himself in conflict with local schoolteacher Will Cantrell (Pidgeon) over both the job of Marshall in Lawrence, Kansas, and the hand of the local Southern banker's daughter, Miss Mary McCloud (Trevor). When Seton appears to have won not only the job, but also Mary's heart, Cantrell decides that the way to power lies through lawlessness, and forms a band of freebooters who ravage both Northern and Southern settlements, causing destruction and terror in Kansas.
While the film is not totally historically accurate, it does do a good job of portraying the viciousness and ruthlessness of pre-Civil War Kansas. It is told from the Northern point of view, and is a nice contrast to Errol Flynn's Santa Fe Trail, which came out the same year (1940) and portrays similar events in "bleeding Kansas" from a Southern point of view.
Part-Western, part-Civil War movie, Dark Command is one of Wayne's best early starring roles. Fans of his, or of the genre's will not be disappointed.
Although 'Dark Command' reads like a 'Who's Who' of Westerns (John Wayne,
Roy Rogers, Gubby Hayes, Clare Trevor etc), the real 'star' is its
William Riley (WR) Burnett.
He created a vivid moral fable of the wild west - William Cantrell (Pidgeon)gives up the role of good School teacher to become a ruthless bushwacker and gunrunner. In the opposite corner is the illiterate Bob Seton (Wayne) who keeps the Faith and becomes town marshall. Both want to achieve things and get the same girl before the Civil War strikes(Trevor)
Seton stands up for right even if it means losing friends and the girl, whilst Cantrell will stop at nothing to make a difference and as his Mother (Main) remarks "the Devil is walking with you". The title of the movie must say it all for W R Burnett.
The picture is not only gripping but hilarious and good hearted in parts. Gubby Hayes is superb as Seton's Dentist/Barber/Butcher and is responsible for most of the humour and keeps your interest when the film starts to fade.
For Western fans, 'Dark Command' is a must - to see Wayne, Rogers, Hayes & Trevor together should not be missed. But general moviegoers should try and catch it if they can - to see the work of the man who (amongst others) penned 'Little Caesar', 'High Sierra', 'The Alsphalt Jungle' and of course 'The Great Escape' (all great titles!)and frankly any movie that has the line "Jumping Catfish - I can give up Barbering!" has got to be worth a looksee.
"Dark Command" is, of course, one of the Essential Westerns, since it puts
up Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes and JOHN WAYNE on the screen at the same
time--not to mention teaming up the Duke with Claire Trevor, his lady from
"Stagecoach." It's also a transitional film, mixing in elements (and
actors) from the long line of Republic horse operas of the 1930s with
themes, leads, and a director more in line with the "A" pictures of its
The real star is the heavy, Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon), who begins as a
schoolteacher and ends as a cynical partisan leader with no real
John Wayne is no slouch here, but his role is too much the conventional
guy to allow him to outsize Pidgeon. Roy Rogers actually gets to kill a
guy, and Gabby Hayes plays something more than a caricature.
Now for the history: There wasn't really a time warp in 1861 Kansas that allowed people to get Colt Model 1873 revolvers, which everyone in the movie except Claire Trevor seems to pack. Sergio Leone got away with it in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," though, so I will forgive Mr. Walsh. Cantrell is VERY loosely based on William Quantrill, a Confederate guerrilla leader who actually burned Lawrence, KS, during the Civil War. Thirty years after "Dark Command," John Wayne would play a former member of Quantrill's Raiders in "True Grit."
Few people did westerns better than John Wayne, few directors did them
better than Raoul Walsh, and NO studio did them better than Republic--and
when you put the three of them together, the results are pretty near
This film, based on the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, during the Civil War by the Confederate guerilla Quantrill, bears little relation to the actual event--but if you want a history lesson, turn on the Discovery Channel. Instead, just sit back and marvel at the rousing action sequences that Republic was renowned for, enjoy the sea of great old cowboy actors (Gabby Hayes, Harry Woods, Wally Wales, Trevor Bardette, Glenn Strange, etc.), check out the performance of a young Roy Rogers (he's actually very good), and enjoy the talents of masters like Wayne and Walsh at their prime--and remember that this is the kind of movie people are talking about when they say, "They don't make 'em like they used to."
Mr. Walsh never let historical accuracy get in the way of telling a good rouser about a historical character. This film and Errol Flynn's "They Died with Their Boots On" made the following year for Warner Brothers are prime examples. This is a good Saturday afternoon movie when is what day I first saw it on. Mr. Wayne was still working on his iconic Western Hero image ( which he would nail down perfectly in "Tall In the Saddle" far more impressive than his lummox with a mission performance in "Stagecoach") and to my mind wasn't grating, Gabby Hayes wasn't a total clown, Roy Rogers was actually acting! and Claire Trevor was good doing her part at playing a bland upper class town girl. But Walter Pigeon steals the picture. No namby pamby Greer Garson where are you stuff here! He gets a chance at playing the marauder William C. Quantrill (in this movie called Cantrell)and goes for it. From freeing slaves after killing their owner and selling them to someone else ( Deep real real Deep that scene... ahem) to massacring a Rebel supply train then donning their uniforms and saying he and his growing band are going ' fight for Dixie, Pigeon is a good man to be bad. In a way he seems to be a precursor to Cody Jarret W.R. Burnett and Raoul Walshs' other crazed mamma obsessed bandit. Like Cody he comes from a family of guntoting pyschos who have bad endings. Unlike Cody he is more educated and Mom isn't a gunslinger herself, though Majorie Mains' character could've been written that way. I can hear her raspy voice telling Walter "Ya need ta go to Lawrence and burn it down 'round that Seton fellas ears and git yer woman back boy, how else yer gonna keep these coyotes in line." All in all a good Western with some darker issues bubbling beneath the popcorn.
John Wayne (as Bob Seton) stars in a Civil War-era film wherein he runs
for Marshall of a Kansas town, against wicked schoolteacher Walter
Pidgeon (as Will Cantrell). Of course, they are rivals for the
attention of a woman - beautiful Claire Trevor (as Mary McCloud). Roy
Rogers adds additional charm as brother McCloud. The story is rather
more ordinary than intriguing, but the western scores on several
First, the direction by Raoul Walsh is outstanding. The production is well-mounted; it includes the expected exciting climax, but that's not all... Even better than the climatic ending is a spectacular sequence involving a stagecoach. Don't miss it! The indoor scenes are great, too. Watch the scenes in the Barber Shop, for example: witness the sets, direction, and photography. The placement of characters and objects, along with the great street outdoors, provide terrific visual depth.
The story doesn't do the production justice, however. And, some of the performances are merely adequate; and, sometimes they seem unfocused. Mr. Pidgeon's is probably the most consistent of the main players. Mr. Wayne and some of the players might have improved with some additional worked on their characterizations; and, if the story was sharper, "Dark Command" might have been a truer classic.
******* Dark Command (1940) Raoul Walsh ~ John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Walter Pidgeon
After the spectacular success of John Wayne in "Stagecoach", Republic
realized they actually had an 'A'-list star...still making 'B' movies!
While Duke was on loan to RKO for "Allegheny Uprising" (continuing to
'farm out' their biggest star out to major studios would provide a
MAJOR source of cash for the small studio), Republic worked on creating
their first 'major' western, borrowing MGM's Walter Pigeon, top Warner
director Raoul Walsh (who'd directed Wayne's failed initial 'starring'
role, "The Big Trail", ten years earlier), Claire Trevor (in what would
be her third teaming with Wayne in two years), rising star Roy Rogers
(who'd inherited the "Singing Cowboy" roles a dubbed Wayne had played
in the thirties), and ever-popular Gabby Hayes (a frequent Wayne
co-star for nearly a decade).
The result of all the assembled talent was a well-crafted, if still modestly-budgeted film, showcasing Duke's charisma and 'star' quality. As an illiterate but straight-talking Texan in Lawrence, Kansas, Duke wins the hearts of the townspeople and (eventually) banker's daughter Trevor, over intellectual schoolteacher William Cantrell (Pidgeon, playing a variation of infamous Southern guerrilla fighter William Quantrell). With the beginning of the Civil War, Cantrell, showing the signs of insanity his mother (the ever-wonderful Marjorie Main) had warned him of inheriting, recruits an 'army' of mercenaries, dons a stolen Rebel uniform, and burns and pillages, with Duke in pursuit, climaxing in a last-ditch defense of Lawrence.
While very 'fast and loose', historically, "Dark Command" is great fun, and the Wayne/Trevor chemistry was never more enjoyable!
I have always liked westerns and this is a great one. Older westerns were closer in time to the events portrayed and even where the production values were not as stunning as those evident in newer film, these older westerns often brought an understanding of the people and the circumstances that is not the same thing as historical accuracy. It may have a character use the wrong kind of gun or an event portrayed may have ended differently but, as to the important things, older westerns get it right and that includes the nature of the people and the cadence of their lives. This is a wonderful movie and a portrayal of the mid-nineteenth century American that resonates even now. The older I get the more I enjoy and appreciate John Wayne's film persona. Whatever his real life behavior,the character he consistently portrayed was the kind of man who did build this country and is the kind of man I would have wanted to know and to introduce to my children. By speech and action, he was decent, gallant and manly --all in short supply in current film. This is a movie that deserves our time and our respect.
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