Dark Command

William Clarke Quantrill was one of those controversial figures who gained fame or noteriety, depending on where one’s sympathies lay, as a result of his activities during the Civil War. The nature of those activities has ensured that his character and associates have continued to appear on screen on a fairly regular basis, right up to Ang Lee’s much maligned Ride with the Devil. Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940) takes Quantrill, changes his name to Cantrell, and adds a written caveat at the beginning to explain that certain liberties have been taken with the truth. As such it’s not a biopic of the man in the traditional sense; it merely uses the character and a few events from his life to tell a standard western story. Taken on this level it works very well, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film by Walsh that didn’t work on some level.

Dark Command opens in Lawrence, Kansas on the eve of the Civil War, with Bob Seton (John Wayne) arriving in town in the company of perennial sidekick ‘Gabby’ Hayes. Seton is an uncomplicated Texan who’s in the process of working his way across the country. In making the acquaintance of banker’s daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), he also meets local schoolteacher Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Both men clearly have romantic designs on Miss McCloud, and their rivalry later extends to the political arena when they run for the newly instituted position of town marshal. It is Seton’s victory in this election that proves the catalyst for Cantrell’s abandonment of civic duty in favour of a much more lucrative career as a guerilla raider. Actually this brings about a change in the two lead characters; Seton becoming tougher and more assured once the weight of responsibility falls on his shoulders, and Cantrell revealing his venal nature in his quest to attain “greatness”. This personal animosity is played out while, all around, the town divides itself along pro-Union and pro-Confederacy lines. The wider national conflict is referred to only through dialogue and one of those, now cliched, burning map shots.

As I said before the film isn’t a straight biopic and never claims to be giving all the historical facts. Having said that Quantrill did work as a teacher in Lawrence in the years preceding the Civil War, although I’m not aware of his running for marshal or other elected office. It has been said of Raoul Walsh that his idea of humour was burning down a whorehouse; in Dark Command he goes one step further by burning down a whole town, although not for comedic value. The sacking of Lawrence by Quantrill is a known historical event and the film duly acknowledges this. However, this set piece, which forms the climax of the story, doesn’t dwell on the gory excesses of Quantrill’s men. Instead it uses it as a means of neatly wrapping up the personal battle between Seton and Cantrell. One could pick out all kinds inaccuracies relating to timelines, weaponry, the ultimate fate of Quantrill and so on, but I’ve never felt that this serves much of a purpose. Movies are a means of telling stories, and if this requires the makers to play a little fast and loose with the facts, well, so be it.

John Wayne made Dark Command one year after Stagecoach, the film which offered him a way out of the cycle of B westerns he’d been doing since the failure of Walsh’s The Big Trail. It’s a little ironic that the man who first introduced Wayne to the cinema-going public should again feature at the rebirth of his career. The Duke is still not the finished product here, although he’s not far away; audiences wouldn’t really see his fully formed western character until Tall in the Saddle, a few years later. There’s a bit too much mugging in the first half of the picture, although the easy, confident Wayne we’re all familiar with starts to emerge as the story moves along. Walter Pidgoen was an actor I’ve never really warmed to, but he was capable of turning in good performances as men carrying around a lot of internal baggage – How Green Was My Valley would be a good example of this. His Cantrell is never all that convincing as an out-and-out villain but maybe that’s just the way the part was written. Where he’s at his best are those private moments when he gives vent to all the pent up frustration that comes from thwarted ambition. Claire Trevor, who received top billing here, was a fine actress and does well as the conflicted woman at the centre of events. In Stagecoach she showed good chemistry with Wayne and that spark continues to be evident in this film. Romantic interludes were never Wayne’s strong suit but the tough Miss Trevor manages to draw out her co-star quite successfully.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that Raoul Walsh’s sense of humour tended towards the broad, and that’s certainly the case in the scenes with ‘Gabby’ Hayes. In much the same way as with Walsh’s contemporary and fellow Irish-American John Ford, audiences either get this kind of humour or they don’t. Superficially, one could see similarities in the styles of these two directors, but Ford remains the better known filmmaker. That’s not to say that Walsh should be regarded as a lesser figure, mind; he was every inch the professional and turned out some of the finest films of classic era Hollywood. It should also be mentioned that Dark Command contains some top class second unit work from the great Yakima Canutt. There’s a spectacular wagon jump from atop a cliff, and another outing for his patented under-a-moving-wagon escape ala Indiana Jones. Today’s climate of clumsy editing and overused CGI makes this viewer yearn for the era when there was genuine creativity and artistry in the second unit.

The movie is available on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the old R1 from Artisan and the picture quality is quite good. Like all those Republic pictures released by Artisan there hasn’t been any restoration done, so there are instances of speckling and the odd cigarette burn. However, the print remains in pretty good shape and is always watchable. The R2 comes from Universal UK, and while I don’t have it to compare I would be wary of its quality considering its source. Dark Command is a fine western with an epic feel that comes partly from the bigger budget that Republic granted it. I’d recommend it to the general western fan and anyone with an interest in the Civil War era, or the development of the Duke’s career.