Monday 3 June 2013

Movie Review: Dark Command (1940)

A western set in the shadow of the impending Civil War, Dark Command mixes a love triangle with good performances and hefty action to deliver robust entertainment.

As the Civil War looms, Kansas is the scene of a large in-migration from both the north and the south, and the divided loyalties cause friction. Originally from Texas, Bob Seton (John Wayne) arrives in Lawrence, Kansas without much of a life plan, a simple but principled man who uses his fists to good effect. Local girl Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor) is the daughter of powerful banker Angus (Porter Hall), and as soon as Bob sets his eyes on Mary he decides that she's the woman he wants to marry. Meanwhile Mary's younger brother Fletcher (Roy Rogers) starts to idolize Bob.

Lawrence's school teacher William Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon) has been wooing Mary for years, and is none too impressed that she seems to be quickly falling in love with newcomer Bob. Cantrell is further rattled when Seton beats him to the newly created position of Marshall for the growing town. With nothing in his life working out, and the Civil War erupting and creating a law and order vacuum, Cantrell turns to a life of adventurous crime as a leader of a militia of thugs, setting him on a collision course with Seton.

Loosely inspired by the story of real-life confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill, Dark Command is an engaging, character-rich western. John Wayne and Walter Pidgeon are well-balanced foes, and Claire Trevor provides a sparkly third point to the romantic triangle.

Wayne plays Bob Seton as a laid-back, none-too-bright do-gooder, unable to read or write but filled with hokey Texas anecdotes. Wayne's physical stature and screen presence are impressive. Director Raoul Walsh had discovered Wayne ten years earlier, and here the director makes the emerging star the focal point for every shot that he is in, Wayne's relaxed demeanour enough to win over new friends and overcome the ill-intent of all foes.

Mary McCloud: I thought they bred men of flesh and blood in Texas. I was wrong. You're made of granite!
Bob Seton: No, Mary, just common clay. It bakes kind of hard in Texas.

Walter Pidgeon leaves a lasting impression as the no-good William Cantrell. With darkness hovering behind his eyes, a murky relationship with his mother, and the weight of repeated failures pushing him in the wrong direction, Pidgeon makes Cantrell an excellent counterpoint to Seton, and the various duels between them in pursuit of power, in pursuit of Mary, and to influence Fletcher, propel Dark Command forward.

However, one of the film's weaknesses is an insufficient delving into Cantrell's background and motivation to resort to a life of crime. It all seems to happen too suddenly, and there was more of a story there that needed to be told rather than obliquely hinted at.

With Wayne not quite yet a superstar, Claire Trevor, his co-star from 1939's Stagecoach, gets top billing. In Mary McCloud she creates a feisty, independent woman, already able to control her powerful father (she treats him like a child) and looking for a man who can keep up with her.

Walsh keeps the tension simmering at a good temperature, adding plenty of seasoning with animated secondary characters, throwing in conflict points at regular intervals, including Fletch McCloud getting himself into trouble and forcing Seton to take a moral stand despite his love for Mary, and giving Roy Rogers plenty of screen time in the process. Walsh also uses the turmoil of the Civil War as a solid backdrop to heighten the drama, while the script offers taut dialogue and some edgy zingers in the exchanges between Seton and Cantrell.

Bob Seton, accepting Cantrell's dinner invitation: This is the first time I've had two kinds of bird for dinner - turkey to eat, and buzzard to look at.

Good guys, bad guys, murder, trial, bank runs, slave running, gun running, posses, war, guerrillas, romance, and some humour: Dark Command offers plenty of western meat to chew on, and it's all well done.

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