Directed By: Raoul Walsh
Starring: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon
Tag line: "A drama of undying love"
Trivia: The character of Will Cantrell is loosely based on the real life Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill
One of the more intriguing tales to come out of the American Civil War was that of Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of renegades led by former Ohio Schoolteacher, William Clarke Quantrill. Under the guise of fighting for the Confederacy, Quantrill and his men spent much of the war raiding and pillaging, and on August 21, 1863, burned the entire town of Lawrence, Kansas, to the ground, killing some 150 residents in the process. Dark Command, a 1940 film directed by Raoul Walsh, is a dramatized account of both Quantrill and his infamous ‘army’.
In the days just prior to the hostilities between the States, Bob Seton (John Wayne) travels from Texas to Lawrence, Kansas. Once there, he makes plans to run for town marshal, his sole opponent being local school teacher, Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Seton not only wins the election, but also steals the heart of Cantrell’s girl, Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor). Left bitter by this recent turn of events, Cantrell takes advantage of the outbreak of war by organizing a small army, consisting mostly of criminals, that terrorizes the entire state of Kansas, looting and killing in the name of the Confederacy. Now on opposite sides of the law, both Cantrell and Seton know it's just a matter of time before they meet again, setting the stage for a nasty showdown from which only one will walk away.
“I put everybody in (Dark Command)”, director Raoul Walsh once said, and this star-studded picture went on to become a huge hit for Republic Studios. Aside from veritable newcomer John Wayne and perennial western star, Gabby Hayes (who plays Andrew Grunch, Wayne’s sidekick and the town's dentist), Dark Command also had Claire Trevor, fresh off her star-making performance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, as well as a very young Roy Rogers, playing Trevor’s hot-tempered younger brother, Fletch. Yet even with this impressive list of names, Dark Command belonged to one man: Walter Pidgeon. His turn as Cantrell perfectly captured the complex nature of this bitterly emotional man. Despite his intelligence, Cantrell was haunted by a checkered family history, one he and his mother (Marjorie Main) hoped to escape by moving to Kansas. Yet neither his schooling nor the respected position he held could fend off the fiery ambition burning deep within him, and when Cantrell was unable to gain power by legal means, he took matters into his own hands.
Dark Command has some exciting action sequences jammed into its hour and a half run time, but ultimately, the film works best as a moment in history, exploring a time period rich in colorful characters. And William Clarke Quantrill, in spite of his criminal ways, was one of the most colorful of the bunch.