Combustible Celluloid
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With: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Roy Rogers, George 'Gabby' Hayes, Porter Hall, Marjorie Main, Raymond Walburn, Joe Sawyer, Helen MacKellar, J. Farrell MacDonald, Trevor Bardette
Written by: Grover Jones, Lionel Houser, F. Hugh Herbert, Jan Fortune, based on a novel by W.R. Burnett
Directed by: Raoul Walsh
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 94
Date: 04/15/1940

Dark Command (1940)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Spoils of War

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Raoul Walsh gave John Wayne his first shot at stardom with the expensive, clunky failure The Big Trail (1930), which then relegated Wayne to a decade's worth of cheap "B" movies. But after breaking out in Stagecoach (1939), Walsh teamed up with Wayne once again for this much better movie, a Western that takes place during the early years of the Civil War.

As with Stagecoach, Wayne is second-billed to his leading lady, Claire Trevor. Trevor plays Kansas beauty Mary McCloud, who has long been admired by local schoolteacher Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Enter "Doc" Grunch (Gabby Hayes) and Bob Seton (John Wayne). They have a scam wherein Bob punches rabble-rousers in the face and then Doc takes care of their subsequent dental needs.

Bob falls for Mary and decides to stay in Kansas for a while. He also decides to run for marshal, although, unfortunately, his opponent is Cantrell. When Bob wins and Cantrell loses, Cantrell gets the idea to form an outfit of guerilla raiders, and as the Civil War approaches, he only grows wealthier and more powerful.

Yes, Cantrell is a fictionalized version of William Quantrill and his real-life raiders. But this story is too pulpy and loony for real-life. The scene in which Cantrell manages to convince Mary to marry him is beyond belief, and the goopy patriotism on one side and the goofy humor on the other stick out too far at the ends. Nevertheless, Walsh was one of the greatest of all slam-bang directors, and he keeps his head in the game; the movie stays focused and energetic.

He lets things get dark during certain moments, as well, such as when Cantrell's mom (!) decides that enough is enough and threatens her son with a rifle. The movie is aided by the fact that Cantrell is such a complex villain, and by the fact that Wayne seems to have already settled completely into his heroic, laconic onscreen persona.

The movie's black-and-white Art Direction, and Victor Young's rousing score were both nominated for Oscars. In 2013, Olive Films released Dark Command on a new, high-quality DVD and Blu-ray.

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