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Olive Films opened the Republic film vault doors wide in the last year, letting loose a long list of John Wayne's legendary 'B' westerns: Santa Fe Stampede, Pals of the Saddle, Frontier Horizon, Red River Range, Overland Stage Raiders and King of the Pecos. These vintage sagebrush adventures now play as charmingly unpretentious little oases of action and good humor. Wayne's studio contract was apparently still in force after his breakthrough Ford western Stagecoach, for less than a year later he's back in the definite 'A' Republic feature Dark Command. It purports to be the story of Quantrill's Raiders in the "Bleeding Kansas" guerilla warfare that coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War.
This is definitely an uptick in prestige for Republic, with top director Raoul Walsh at the helm and a script adapted from a book by W.R. Burnett. Victor Young composed the music. Wayne's Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor gets top billing, and classy MGM actor Walter Pidgeon was obtained for the occasion.
The story, as they say, changes history a bit. Cheerful, aphorism-spouting Texas cowboy Bob Seton, by his dress and weaponry, appears to have arrived by time machine from the 1880s. He arrives in 1861 Lawrence, Kansas with his amusing partner Doc Grunch (George "Gabby" Hayes), a frontier dentist who drums up business by encouraging Bob to punch people's teeth out. Bob falls in love with local banker's daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), who is dodging marriage proposals from Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon), the local schoolteacher. Back home, Will is having his mother (Marjorie Main) pretend to be his housekeeper, to protect her from some past criminal problem. We're told that Will's two brothers have already gone bad. Mary responds to Bob's impetuous advances, as opposed to Will's polite entreaties; Bob beats Will in an election for town sheriff, and very soon thereafter has to arrest Mary's brother Fletch (Roy Rogers) for murder. Will defends Fletch but also organized a group of nightriders to intimidate the jury. Mary goes back to Will and they are married even though she doesn't love him. Will has already decided to take advantage of the political unrest over the free/slave question for Kansas. His guerilla raiders pretend to be Confederate troops but instead loot the countryside, murdering at will. Bob's posses can't catch them. Her father killed by a mob, Mary leaves to rejoin Will at what she thinks is a legit military camp. Bob accompanies her but is captured. Now Will Cantrell has a real problem - getting Mary to accept his lies, and getting rid of the incorruptible Bob Seton.
Dark Command surely pleased fans of John Wayne, as he basically plays his standard lovable saddle-pal western hero, complete with friendly smile and unimpeachable ethics. The problem is jamming such an aw-shucks character into one of the most morally compromised outbreaks of home-front anarchy in American history. Dark Command is a case of Republic trying to cover a big, messy subject with its simplistic western template. Quantrill's, I mean, Cantrell's Raiders really came to be because of unrequited love, see? And what was really a mass collision of hatreds and bigotry is here boiled down to one malcontented schoolteacher. Republic's favorite light comedy and folksy character actors need to be shoehorned in there as well. For a fascinating, exciting and funny take on the Kansas-Missouri wars & the real Quantrill's Raiders, Ang Lee's impressive Ride with the Devil gets a big endorsement.
The big victim here is Walter Pidgeon, who does as well as he can playing a character that doesn't convince for a minute. Will Cantrell is a gentle, learned, sophisticated guy by day, and a mass of unmotivated resentment and hatred by night. He obviously wouldn't harm a soul, yet has no problem stealing and killing on a mass scale. Cantrell steals and sells several wagonloads of black slaves before quitting that racket - he says he doesn't want to end up like John Brown. 1 Unlike say, Colonel Kurtz, this self-appointed privateer is unchanged by his war crimes -- he's still as gentle an uncomplicated as ever when he reaffirms his love for Mary at the end. Pidgeon doesn't dishonor himself, but he must have been very happy to get out of these woods and hired for more the coherent shows How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver.
Republic apparently just wasn't all that prepared, or really interested, in making Dark Command a movie of competitive quality. Its pleasures come from watching a likeable group of actors go through their paces, even if none of them seem aware that, well, there's a nasty guerilla war going on. Roy Rogers plays a fairly thankless supporting role as Fletch, the fancy-pants guy who just wants to be a cowboy. Part of the time Fletch is an unnecessary secondary sidekick for Wayne, and for a few reels he's a confused outlaw. Fletch commits a clear cut killing, but although other issues are resolved, his only punishment is a bullet wound. Rogers is more of a personality than an actor; two happy-go-lucky nice guys goofing in front of the camera is a bit much. Claire Trevor is excellent as Mary, although she and Pidgeon seem to be the only ones told that this is meant to be a serious movie. Marjorie Main's character behaves as if playing in a horror picture. She's a devoted mom but (maybe) was sort of a Ma Barker character in the past. She makes an oath early on that we instantly know will be acted upon by film's end. The rest of the footage is devoted to amusing antics with the supporting cast. Gabby Hayes's dentist is excited to graduate to surgical work -- without benefit of training. Raymond Walburn's mayor is his usual wheezing windbag. Porter Hall puts on a Scots accent to play Mary's father. The script can't decide if his Angus McCloud is a jerk or an okay guy.
And what about the historical content of the film? Although they assemble like an army in the last scene, "Quantrill's" Raiders more often resemble a standard group of western baddies; how the good teacher Will originally enlisted them is a mystery. The split loyalties that brought out open hostilities, murders and reprisals when war was declared are largely missing. They amount to one killing in a bar, a run on a bank and a mob action against Mary McCloud for being Cantrell's wife. The burning of Lawrence isn't all that more chaotic than cowboy violence in a town-taming movie. Even though there is a war on, Lawrence is full of able-bodied men, who resist the attack. There are no bodies in the streets and no summary executions.
Raoul Walsh probably handled all the dialogue scenes and action with the main characters; all of the main interaction is well done. We would like to approve of Walter Pidgeon's conversion from milquetoast to piratical maniac, but the writing just isn't there. The movie's action is mostly standard Republic stuff, probably shot by their stunt experts. A shot of a buckboard going off a cliff into a lake, horses and all, is quite spectacular ... I think it has shown up more than once or twice in other movies, too. We see lots of muzzle-loading rifles, but Wayne and others pack Colt revolvers and other cartridge-shooting hardware that wouldn't really be available for ten years or so, certainly after the War Between the States had concluded.
Dark Command: amusing, somewhat mismanaged John Wayne 'A' western. As far as history goes it's a joke, but we'll be reasonable and add that very few westerns, then, now or whenever, accurately report historical fact.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Dark Command is a very sharp and handsome rendering in HD. The optical title sequence and a few other moments in the picture have plenty of speckled dirt. The bulk of the picture looks sensational. There are no extras, but John Wayne fans won't mind. Those with Blu-ray players are getting a bounty of vintage John Wayne oaters this year from Olive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dark Command Blu-ray rates:
1. Somebody correct me, but I thought that the mad abolitionist John Brown encouraged slaves to revolt, when not bashing in men's skulls with an axe handle.
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