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DARK COMMAND (director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: from the book by W.R. Burnett/Jan Fortune/F. Hugh Herbert/Lionel Houser/Grover Jones; cinematographer: Jack A. Marta; editors: William Morgan; music: Victor Young; cast: Claire Trevor (Mary McCloud), John Wayne (Bob Setton), Walter Pidgeon (William Cantrell), Roy Rogers (Fletch McCloud), George “Gabby” Hayes (Doc Grunch), Porter Hall (Angus McCloud), Raymond Walburn (Judge Buckner), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Cantrell, aka Mrs. Adams); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sol C. Siegel; Republic; 1940)
“Republic’s costliest film; it was also its biggest box office hit.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Dark Command, budgeted at over 700,000 dollars, was Republic’s costliest film; it was also its biggest box office hit –a studio known for its cheapies, B-Westerns and serials. Raoul Walsh directs in a lively manner; it’s based on the book by W.R. Burnett and it’s scripted by a team of writers. It’s set in pre-Civil War Kansas in 1859 at a time when the political situation was boiling over with tensions from the conflict over slavery between the north and the south. It’s a fictionalized version of the story of William Clarke Quantrill, a ruthless guerrilla masquerading as a Confederate officer who loots and burns towns down, but in the film he’s called William Cantrell. Walter Pidgeon plays the raider as an urbane ex-schoolteacher who seeks wealth to marry a banker’s daughter and improve his impoverished mom’s (Marjorie Main) lot in life, who pretends to be his housekeeper Mrs. Adams so as not to embarrass him. Any historical value is negligible, but the fast-moving tale makes for an entertaining hokum story.

Partners from Texas, Doc Grunch (George “Gabby” Hayes) and Bob Setton (John Wayne), arrive by covered wagon in Lawrence, Kansas, where Grunch opens a barbershop and dentist office–his dental customers are supplied by Bob who gets in fights and punches his victims in the jaw loosening their teeth. The romantic Bob falls for banker’s daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), who rejects the illiterate cowboy for the gentle schoolteacher Will Cantrell. Her wealthy Scotchman banker father, Angus (Porter Hall), who speaks with a thick Scottish accent, approves of Will, while her impressionable younger brother Fletch (Roy Rogers) idolizes Bob. With an outbreak in crime, the town elects a new marshal and Bob defeats Will because the people believe he can catch the crooks and is honest. Bob also steals Mary away from the poor schoolteacher. So sore loser Will turns into a slave-trader and then a gun-runner, and during the outbreak of the Civil War forms a large raiding gang that turns Kansas bloody and makes him a rich man.

Eventually it’s up to Bob to save Lawrence from Cantrell’s raiders, as they burn down Lawrence in the spectacular action-packed concluding scene. Mary is trapped between the two bitter rivals, going back and forth between them, but always remains loyal to her hot-headed Confederate ideological spouting brother who gets into a jam because he’s trigger-happy.

There’s one classic scene, concerning the leap by four men and a team of horses off a bluff into a lake as they escapeCantrell’s raiders. Yakima Canutt and Cliff Lyons doubled for Wayne and Hayes, as shot by second unit director Joseph Kane. It’s interesting to note that many other westerns imitated these shots but were done by less careful directors. This led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”