Dark Command (1940)
The Duke goes Pidgeon Racing
This is the first time I've had two kinds of bird for dinner - turkey to eat, and buzzard to look at - Bob Seton
"Dark Command" is loosely based on the life of Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill but as with many movies it mixes fact with fiction to create an entertaining drama about rivalry, jealousy and escaping your past. That probably sounds a little deep or at least deep for what is essentially a western and in a way it is flattering because whilst a good movie which features a young looking John Wayne "Dark Command" is not overly deep. But it is entertaining with some decent action scenes and thanks to a brilliant performance from Walter Pidgeon keeps you interested.
Having arrived in Lawrence, Kansas with his friend Doc Grunch (Gabby Hayes - Texas Terror), Bob Seton (John Wayne - The First Rebel) finds himself instantly attracted to Miss Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor - Stagecoach), the daughter of the local banker. But he's not the only one with feelings towards Mary as local schoolteacher, William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon) is planning to marry her. That is not their only cause of rivalry as both Bob and William find themselves running for the vacant position of town Marshal. When Bob wins the race as well as the affections of Mary it causes Cantrell to turn bad and with an ever expanding group of men he starts trading slaves and then gun running, terrorizing anyone who gets in his way in the territory.
As already mentioned "Dark Command" is all about rivalry, jealousy and escaping your past which does provide the movie with a few layers and some minor depth. But these layers are not that clear to start with as on first glance "Dark Command" feels like a stereotypical western with two men competing over the same woman. It all seems obvious from the first time we watch Bob Seton meet Mary McCloud and they argue that Seton will end up pursuing her and at the same time with Will Cantrell lurking in the background you can also guess that he has feelings for Mary. And so as the story progresses we watch as Seton and Cantrell compete not only to become the Marshall of Lawrence but also for Mary's affections with her flitting between the two men as they tell her how much they love her.
But that's just one of the layers to "Dark Command" and there is also the historical element as the events and certain characters are based upon the life of Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill. Now to be honest I don't know much about the real Quantrill other than what I have learnt in writing this movie review but what is evident is that "Dark Command" takes events from his life and expands upon them whilst tinkering with the truth to create a story fit for a movie. In a way it works because watching Walter Pidgeon as Cantrell turn bad having lost the competition to become Marshall and then leading an ever expanding band of men on various rampages is entertaining especially with Marshall Seton on his trail as well at the same time civil war breaking out. And it also paves way for one of the movies most impressive scenes as following Mary's brother Fletch shooting a man Cantrell ends up defending him in court, but before that during the night he leads his masked men on a campaign of terror to scare the jury into declaring Fletch not guilty. It's a magnificent set of scenes which really help create this character and give the movie more depth than you expect from a western.
It is the depth which makes "Dark Command" more than just another western and whilst you get all the expected western elements and there are some brilliant action scenes, it is the conflicted character of Cantrell who makes the movie work. You have to say that Walter Pidgeon out shines everyone in the movie because his characterisation of Cantrell is spot on giving us the aspect of this young man who is embarrassed by his family's history, that of being a bunch of criminals, and is desperate to make it by being decent and honourable. In the interactions with his mother, who for the sake of not embarrassing him pretends to be his housekeeper, you really get a sense of the embarrassment he has for his past but also for basically denying his mum. Yet you then get the other side, the evilness which is brought out by losing to Seton in becoming town Marshall and watching Cantrell lead various criminal raids you really get a sense of the hatred that the man has.
So strong is Walter Pidgeon's performance that it puts everyone else's performances in the shade including that of John Wayne. But having said this it is a nice performance from the young John Wayne delivering entertainment from playing the uneducated but decent Bob Seton, giving him that element of classic John Wayne confidence but also giving him an aspect of youthful naivety. And at the same time John Wayne works well with Claire Trevor, George 'Gabby' Hayes and Roy Rogers all of which do just as well to make their characters interesting despite being out shone by Pidgeon.
What this all boils down to is that "Dark Command" is a surprisingly entertaining movie, it may tinker with the facts as it takes a real life character as its basis but it works. And whilst it does serve up plenty of typical western elements from a romance through to some terrifically shot action it is the conflicted character of Cantrell and a brilliant performance from Walter Pidgeon which helps to make it much more than just another old western.
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