Dark Command (1940)


Dir: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Gabby Hayes, Roy Rogers, Porter Hall, Marjorie Main, Raymond Wallburn

"We gotta saying down in Texas ..."

An early John Wayne western, made one year after the monumental Stagecoach. With a budget of $750,000, Dark Command (1) was quite a prestige object for its production company, Republic, in those days best known for B-movies and serials. It also features singing cowboy Roy Rogers, in a surprisingly dramatic role as Claire Trevor’s trigger-happy younger brother. The story is set in Lawrence, Kansas, on the eve of the Civil War, as the political tensions between the states are growing. Some elements of the plot are (very loosely) based on the historic Quantrill's Raiders. The finale is a romantisized representation of the infamous raid on Lawrence that took place in full wartime, on August 21, 1863.

The film opens with the arrival in town of Doc Crunch, a traveling dentist, and his assistant Bob Seton, a lanky fellow from Texas (they’re a great team: Bob knocks teeth loose, Doc pulls them out!). Lawrence is to be their terminus because the young man falls in love with the local banker’s daughter, Mary McCloud. The illiterate Bob becomes town Marshall, after beating the shoo-in for the election, the seemingly peaceful schoolteacher William Cantrell. The two men are also in competition for Mary and their rivalry comes to a head when Bob is forced to arrest Mary’s brother Fletch for shooting a man. Fletch is defended in court by the eloquent Cantrell, who successfully pleads self-defense. Mary now marries Will, even though she has no romantic feelings for him, and Fletch secretly joins Cantrell and his raiders, a guerilla group supposedly fighting for the Confederacy ...

Dark Command was directed by Raoul Walsh, the man who had discovered Wayne a decade earlier and given him his first leading role in a major production, The Big Trail (1930). Walsh knew exactly how to use the young man and Wayne's character in the movie, Bob Seton, is in every inch type of hero the Duke would become identified with, a friendly yet unflinching man with unquestionable ethics.

Dark Command is a A-movie that often plays like a B-movie. The Duke has a few funny lines as the illiterate guy from Texas who instantly recognizes Shakespeare as a fellow Texan, but some of the light comedy seems out of place in this context. Not too much is made of the historic context of the Missouri-Kansas wars anyway. Like the Cantrell character from the movie, the historic Quantrill was a well-educated person, but he had become a vagabond at relatively young age and had shot his first man at the age of 18. He most certainly did not become a bushwhacker because some guy from Texas had frustrated his aspirations to become a lawman (2).

In the end this might all be of little importance. The movie is no doubt uneven, a bit wacky at times, but it also offers a lively mix of action, romance and drama. And the action scenes are very well handled. The raid on Lawrence (3) is an impressive sequence, beautifully shot and engineered, an entire town going up in flames. Fans of the director will be inclined to compare it to the fiery finale (“Top of the World, Ma!") of White Heat. However, it’s not the movie’s most famous scene. The scene that secured Dark Command a place in film history, is a spectacular (and obviously very dangerous) leap of four men and a team of horses off a cliff into a lake. It was filmed with famous stunt men Yakima Canutt and Cliff Lyons doubling for Wayne and Gabby Hayes. It’s said that the scene (indirectly) led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after similar risky stunts continued to pop up in other movies.


(1) It’s sometimes listed as The Dark Command and this title also appeared on some publicity material such as posters and lobby cards, but the on-screen title is Dark Command, without the definite article

(2) For a more insightful take on the Kansas-Missouri wars I recommend Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil (or Daniel Woodrell's source novel Woe to live on)

(3) For Quantrills Raid on Lawrence see: http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/content/quantrill%E2%80%99s-raid-lawrence