Dark Command (1940) – full review!
If the film Stagecoach (1939) got John Wayne noticed in Hollywood this Western (based on the W.R. Burnett novel of the same name) earned the actor a permanent place on casting director’s cards for the genre. Directed by Raoul Walsh with a screenplay written by Grover Jones (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)) and others the rest of the cast in this average but watchable story was oddly chosen. Claire Trevor as the romantic lead Walter Pidgeon as the renegade bad guy (whose real story – William Quantrill – forms the basis of the fictionalized plot) and Porter Hall as an Irish banker? Well at least Roy Rogers plays a (wannabe) cowboy and Gabby Hayes provides his usual solid support. But even Marjorie Main who naturally plays a mother (of Pidgeon’s character) is uncharacteristically dark almost sinister. John Victor Mackay earned the last of his three unrewarded (B&W) Art Direction Oscar nominations; Victor Young’s Score was also nominated. J. Farrell MacDonald plays a gunrunner.
The story is set in Kansas just before the Civil War was to begin which causes persons from the North and the South to head West to populate that state with voters friendly to their separate positions. Most of the people in Lawrence have Northern sympathies including banker Angus McCloud (Hall) and his daughter Mary (Trevor). His son Fletch (Rogers) however wants to be a cowboy and therefore favors the South. That’s why he’s drawn to Bob Seton (Wayne) who’s come to town with tooth puller Doc Grunch (Hayes). Bob states his Southern sympathies to intentionally get in a fight whereby he knocks his opponent’s tooth loose so that Doc can pull it; they split the proceeds. William Cantrell (Pidgeon) is the town’s schoolteacher who would very much like Mary to accept his proposal of marriage but she doesn’t love him and is initially put off by Bob’s advances as well. Lawrence has gotten big enough to need a Marshal and Angus is backing Cantrell hoping too that his daughter will come around and marry Will. With no future or real possibilities with Mary illiterate Bob decides to run against Will who had begun teaching him to read and write.
When Bob wins the position he also begins to win favor with Mary. An upset Cantrell who’s been keeping the fact that his housekeeper Mrs. Adams (Main) is really his mother because his father and brothers were outlaws decides to become one himself. Actor Joe Sawyer who had primarily played alternately gangsters or police officers previously plays Bushropp the guerrilla fighter that’s Cantrell’s right hand man. Cantrell initially operates undercover (works with slave traders like Al Bridge uncredited etc.) and even defends Fletch against a murder charge. Fletch had shot Mr. Hale (Trevor Bardette) during a dispute in Doc’s barbershop and was clearly guilty forcing his idol Bob to put him on trial in Judge Buckner’s (Raymond Walburn) court. But with handkerchiefs covering their faces Cantrell & his men had bullied the jury members to render a “not guilty” verdict causing Hale’s widow (Helen MacKellar) to scream foul. At the end of the trial the judge announces that the South has seceded from the Union. A grateful Mary weds Cantrell. Upset with Bob per the trial Fletch joins Will and his men.
Shortly after the Civil War is underway Cantrell’s men seize a shipment of guns and Southern uniforms from a supply wagon caravan and Will decides that pretending to be attached to the Confederate army will make a good cover. They continue their raids in earnest but stay clear of Lawrence. Rumors abound however and Hale’s widow starts a run on Angus’s bank during which the Irishman is shot. Cantrell and his men nearly kill Bob who’d been out trying to apprehend the renegades and later falls out of favor with the town’s people for failing to do so. When Hale’s widow and the town’s people turn their rage on Mary in her home Bob rescues her and then gives her safe passage to just outside her husband’s camp. Witnessing Cantrell’s largess (e.g. the spoils of war) Mary finally knows for certain that her husband is a criminal and a scoundrel. Bob is caught by one of Cantrell’s patrols but in front of Mary is treated with respect in the enemy camp. When she leaves Bob is imprisoned before his scheduled execution but is then rescued along with Mary by Fletch who has finally seen the light too. This causes Cantrell & his men to finally raid & burn the undermanned Lawrence and leads to a final showdown between Bob and Will (and his mother) at the McCloud home where Doc is removing a bullet from Fletch (who’d been shot in the escape) under Mary’s watchful eye.