In this pre-civil War saga, Walter Pigeon, as Confederate renegade William Cantrell, along with his raiders, clashes with the new marshal of Kansas City, Bob Seton (John Wayne). Their long-standing rivalry of love and powe... more »r reaches dangerous proportions when Seton exposes Cantrell and his guerillas, who have been raiding both Union and Confederate lines. Roy Rogers co-stars in one of his earliest film roles.« less
"DARK COMMAND is a good, old-fashioned western. The movie takes places in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Not just anywhere in Kansas, either - the movie's set in bloody Lawrence, the hotbed of guerilla activity during that war. Perhaps no guerilla leader was more notorious than Kansas's William Quantrill, the school teacher turned raider who fought against the Union until his death in 1865.
Although DARK COMMAND is a work of fiction, it doesn't try hard to hide its sources. DARK COMMAND is adapted from a novel by the talented and prolific W.R. Burnett, whose Hollywood credits include either the based-on novel and/or screenplay for such action classics as Little Caesar, the original Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle, High Sierra, and dozens of others. John Wayne plays a roustabout Texan named Bob Seton who's traveling through with dentist/barber/sidekick Andrew `Doc' Grunch (George `Gabby' Hayes.) While in Lawrence Seton meets and immediately falls for pretty Miss Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), local belle and daughter of the president of the town's bank, a Virginian (where you were from counted a lot in Kansas prior to the Civil War.) Seton's competitor for the affections of pretty Miss McCloud, and a bit later for the office of town marshal, is schoolteacher William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon.) That the real life Quantrill was also a Lawrence, Kansas schoolteacher is, well, probably something more than a coincidence.
Of course, Cantrell loses both the election and the heart, if not the hand, of Miss McCloud to Seton. As filtered through the Hollywood lense that's more than enough justification to embark on a campaign of pillage and murder, which Pidgeon's Cantrell proceeds to do with a certain amount of righteous dignity. Raoul Walsh, whose last movie before this one was the classic gangster movie `The Roaring Twenties,' directed DARK COMMAND with his usual relentless flair. Also in 1939, the young John Wayne had finally broken through to the a-list after playing the Ringo Kid in John Ford's `Stagecoach.' `Stagecoach' co-star Clair Trevor is billed above Wayne on the credits, but this is very much a John Wayne movie. The two principals, director Walsh and star Wayne, were at strong points in their careers and this movie did nothing to derail them. Wayne wasn't an icon yet but he had the moves down - he's shy and awkward around the women folk, toweringly commanding with men. One of the text extras on the film quotes Walsh's observation that `Wayne had learned to walk and talk' by the time DARK COMMAND was filmed, and if you watch some of Wayne's earlier b-movies you'd have to agree with Walsh's shrewd assessment.
I've seen a handful of Raoul Walsh movies in the past year and enjoy them tremendously. Pidgeon's Cantrell seems to be a prototypical Walsh heavy - he's erudite, urbane and refined, and, we suspect, substantially smarter than the hero. If Hollywood was about to fall in love with Freud Walsh definitely wasn't leading the charge. Even the presence of a maternal housekeeper, played in American Gothic style by Marjorie Main, doesn't do anything to explain what makes Cantrell tick. Cantrell is a Walsh villain, which means he's evil because he's evil and that's that. We'll have to understand him through action rather than introspection. In lesser hands this would leave us with a scowling, carpet-chewing bad guy. But DARK VICTORY'S script is tight, Walsh was a master at action dramas, and Pidgeon is too good an actor - he never drops Cantrell's courtly façade, and he's all the more a menace for it.
Fans of old b-westerns will get a kick out of seeing a (very) young Roy Rogers and `Gabby' Hayes together in the same movie before they became cinema trail mates. Hayes' slightly mush-mouthed `gol-durn-it' routine can be grating, but Walsh uses him as a relatively subtle comic foil to good effect. If you've watched a few too many b-westerns chances are you'll find oddly touching the one scene between Hayes and Rogers. Rogers is in mortal danger and Hayes is his best and only hope. Hayes drops the Gabby act and lets George take over. It's a nice way for Walsh, through Hayes, to turn the tension up a notch and let us know that this is important. It's been my experience that Walsh's movies are filled with such nice touches, and it's one reason why I like them so much. DARK COMMAND has more than enough going for it to rate a strong recommendation. The script is good, performances are uniformly strong, and Walsh is a master at keeping things moving. It's a great early John Wayne western.
Interesting and rare John Wayne movie
Daniel Lee Taylor | 08/19/2000
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This Civil War era movie was very interesting as it tried to follow a generalized campaign of the very infamous Captain Quantrell, the Confederate leader of raiding party's into the North. This was not one of John Wayne's best pictures but it ranks up there as being rare and informative. A must see for true John Wayne fans."
A lesser known Wayne Classic
Daniel Lee Taylor | GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas United States | 03/04/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This movie solidified Wayne's place as a western star after Stagecoach. It is a rollicking fun western that has plenty of action. A really amazing cast was assembled for this film starting with Claire Trevor (of Stagecoach) and Walter Pidgeon. Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers round out the stars of this movie. This is just a joy to watch. The pace never falters and it delivers plenty of fights. Find out if the illiterate cowboy from Texas can overcome the learned teacher who becomes the leader of a vast outlaw band during the Civil War. Will John Wayne get the girl? Forget that I asked. Get this movie."
Popular Wayne Civil War -Era 'Western' Still Shines!
Benjamin J Burgraff | Las Vegas | 11/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Dark Command" is a rip-roaring, entertaining 1940 John Wayne western with plenty of excitement, romance, and comedy, and it offers one of his most engaging pre-WWII performances, as illiterate but straight-shooting Texan 'Bob Seton', wooing Claire Trevor while defending Lawrence, Kansas as the Civil War erupts.
The film is significant in Wayne's career, as it acknowledged his emergence as a major star by the studio (Republic Pictures) who had produced the bulk of his 'quickie' westerns over the previous decade (in their previous incarnation, 'Lone Star' films). With the success of John Ford's "Stagecoach", Wayne's value to the young studio increased dramatically, as a commodity that could be 'loaned out' to major studios for a tidy profit, but without 'quality' Wayne films of their own, his 'bankability' wouldn't last, so Republic mounted a major production, with a top director (Warner's Raoul Walsh, who had helmed the Duke's ill-fated 'starring' debut, "The Big Trail", nearly a decade earlier), a first-class cast (including Trevor, in her third pairing with Wayne in less than two years, and MGM star Walter Pidgeon), and a terrific screenplay (based on a story by respected author W.R. Burnett). Wisely including their most popular character actor, Gabby Hayes, for comic relief, and rising star Roy Rogers (who, surprisingly, doesn't sing!) in support, the end result would not only build upon Wayne's rising status as a major star, but would give the studio credibility within the industry as more than a 'B' picture factory.
While the history covered in "Dark Command" is largely fabricated (with infamous mercenary William Quantrill reinvented as a more urbane, if equally dangerous 'William Cantrell', portrayed by Pidgeon), Walsh never lets the 'facts' interfere with the action, and the end result certainly delivers!
Definitely a 'keeper'! "
"a fella doesn't get any place unless he tries"
W. Walker | westminster md | 05/28/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This was director Raoul Walsh's second film with Wayne as the male lead. The first, "The Big Trail", was Wayne's first big film role, having just acquired his new stage name. Unfortunately, this very expensive film, as one of the first talkie westerns, was a box office bomb, with Wayne unfairly shouldering most of the blame. The present film is a mixed western-Civil War drama set in bleeding Kansas. Wayne has plenty of support from a cast of well known actors in this well paced drama/comedy. Claire Trevor is actually given top billing as the belle around which Wayne, Walter Pigeon and a young Roy Rogers revolve. It seems highly implausible that Wayne, as illiterate drifter Bob Seton, should become infatuated with prim snobbish Claire Trevor, nor that she could ever consider him husband material. Wayne's persistence in promoting this union, even after her marriage, is a recurring source of comedy and drama. Initially, another source of comedy is the recently established working partnership between Wayne and immimical Gabby Hayes, a one time doctor, reformulated as a traveling dentist, barber and whatever else he can fix for you. Character actor Raymond Walburn also provides comedic touches as the bug-eyed stammering stuffed shirt of a judge and apparent mayor of Lawrence, Kansas. Roy Rogers looks rather incongruous as the frustrated brother of Claire, under his father's overbearing thumb, who yearns for the excitement of being a cowboy or soldier. His hot head nearly gets him strung up or otherwise killed. Wayne, on the other hand, with the backing of Gabby, changes from an apparent hot head into an honest coolheaded sheriff. Walter Pigeon is the eloquent-speaking legally literate but financially struggling rival of Wayne for the affections of Claire and for the office of sheriff. The striking contrast in personalities and skills of Wayne and Pigeon in their various competitions is another recurring source of comedy and drama throughout the film. We wonder why Pigeon, with his obvious gift for oratory and knowledge of law, is a poorly paid schoolteacher instead of a lawyer. We suspect that he has been a lawyer, but was forced to resign for some transgressions. In engineering Roger's murder defense, we see for the first time the snake that he is under all that eloquence. From his mother's comments, we are led to believe that the desire to do unethical things is a family trait he inherited or was taught. Things get a lot more serious and complicated as the story progresses. Pigeon,as William Cantrell, knows he is a natural leader of men. Frustrated in obtaining a prominent position in the legal establishment of Lawrence, he organizes a large band of outlaws, posing as Confederate soldiers, as did his historical counterpart, William Quantrell. The film title may suggest this evil gang of thieves and murderers, or it may equally suggest the fact that most of the violent and smuggling confrontations occur at night. Pigeon faces the difficult task of trying to justify or hide from his new wife his rapacious activities. The continuing back and forth relationships between Rogers, Wayne, Pigeon and Claire provide much of the continuing drama of the film."