Directed by Raoul Walsh
April 15, 1940
An illiterate cowhand vies for the heart of a young woman who is being courted by a Western town’s schoolteacher.
John Wayne stars as Bob Seton who is an illiterate cowhand that comes into town and falls hard for the first woman he sees. Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), the woman at the center of the love triangle, is the daughter of a local banker and thus a respected member of the community. Falling for the first woman to enter the field of vision happens a lot to Wayne’s characters. But being a Western romantic type comedy it is acceptable this time. You need to let certain things slide in certain genres.
At the beginning of the film Bob is part of a scam run by traveling dentist Andrew “Doc” Grunch (Gabby Hayes). It is a simple enough scam. It works with Bob getting into arguments and punching teeth loose. The victims then go to Doc to get the teeth yanked out and he turns a profit. Bob and Doc are wondering around the West with Bob pining for Texas but wanting to see the world.
The big baddie in this film is William “Will” Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). He is at the start a quiet schoolteacher, but we quickly learn he has a few secrets. One of the weirder things about the movie/his secrets is that the schoolteacher brought his mother (Marjorie Main) along, but he always introduces her as his housekeeper. Apparently three of his brothers turned out bad and she is trying to keep him on the straight and narrow but as far as they have moved it is highly unlikely that anyone would know who they are related to or even of heard of his brothers. It is not quite clear to me why this ruse was in place.
In the context of the film, it is a little late for Will’s mom to worry about keeping her son wholesome since he is already corrupted. In his opening badness, Will tricks some slaves by saying he is going to set them free because they (the settlers) do not want slavery in the territory, but his real plan is to sell them back to the South as escaped slaves. That is disturbing to me. He does more as the film goes on. Eventually he and his men come across some Confederate uniforms and decide to pass themselves off as Confederate guerillas.
Cantrell and his men are loosely based on Quantrill’s Raiders (see the similarity in names?) who were active during the American Civil War. The film itself was based on a novel by W. R. Burnett. Dark Command was the only other time director Walsh and Wayne worked together besides The Big Trail and this is the ONLY film Roy Rogers and Wayne ever worked together on.
Roy Rogers is cast as Mary’s adventure seeking brother Fletch though at times the part is played and even written like he came to live with the McClouds (of the Clan McCloud-wrong movie). It fluctuates a little until after the first third of the film and the script settles on him definitely being related to Mary.
In the opener Fletch and his banker father Angus (Porter Hall) are fighting on whether or not Fletch should carry a gun. This goes back and forth until the Civil War has started and tensions in the town are very high. People are at McCloud’s bank demanding their money because they believe he is sending it to the South since at this point Mary has married Will and his activities are well known. A gun is drawn and Angus is shot. His dying words to Fletch are “This is what comes from carrying a gun.” That is an interesting anti-gun message that caught me by surprise. I was not expecting a gun control message in such an old film nor in one starring John Wayne.
Dark Command is a very serious sounding title for something billed as a comedy. And in the beginning it is very much a Western style romcom. All the trappings are there. Given the opening jokiness in the movie I was perplexed by the title but the jokes of the film gave way to a more serious style Western as the schoolteacher’s corruption became clear and historical events began to play an increasing part in the plot.
Mary McCloud is a better female character than most for the era. She is enjoying the affections of the two men and of course she is more attracted to John Wayne than he she is to the schoolteacher. But she is not just some female there to be wooed by John Wayne’s manly charms. She has got a bit of a spine and spirit which is a little unusual for the normal Western film damsel of the day. More often than not in my opinion Wayne’s characters were paired with stronger than average for the time female characters.
There are some moments in Dark Command that make me think John Wayne could have done a seriously screwball comedy and done it well. Not too many moments but how he reacted and how he delivered his lines make me think that and wonder what could have been had he accepted the role in Blazing Saddles. Yes, John Wayne was offered the role that eventually went to Gene Wilder. At first I was against it but after seeing this film I wonder what could have been.
The story is good. It does not have any twists or turns or great surprises, but it is entertaining. Wayne is better than he was in The Big Trail under Raul Walsh. Walsh gets some pretty good moments and a more often than not good performance from Wayne, but he did not try as hard as other directors later in Wayne’s career did such as Henry Hathaway or John Ford or Mark Rydell who directed Wayne in The Cowboys.
Dark Command is an entertaining Western that uses bits of history to tell a story rather effectively. For the John Wayne fan as well as the general Western fan this is a watch it!