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Dark Command

Dark Command with John Wayne on the Dingus ProjectTHE DINGUS PROJECT
Jesse James in Film  #22

Strange and foreboding, this film explores the evolution of Bloody Kansas and the border wars that spawned Jesse James and his fellow bushwackers. It does this Hollywood-style, through a fictionalized William Quantrill, who comes up against – hard to imagine – both John Wayne and Roy Rogers.


Dark Command (1940)
John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes, Claire Trevor
94 minutes, B&W

Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire is president of the United States. Good hardworking northern farmers are rushing to fill the Kansas territory in hopes of creating an anti-slave state. John Wayne, a Texan, and his partner Gabby Hayes are working a scam on their way to California. Anyone who likes the Yankee president gets a punch in the mouth by Wayne and his teeth fixed by Gabby, a former doctor turned dentist. They pull into Lawrence, Kansas as the film opens to do a little dentistry. It’s a pretty weird opening.

Dark Command (1940) with John Wayne on the Dingus ProjectWithin minutes of arriving in town Wayne meets the woman of his dreams, Miss Mary McCloud, played by veteran starlet Claire Trevor. Mary is already the love of mild-mannered school teacher William Cantrell (a variation of William Quantrill) played by Walter Pidgeon. Wayne’s character Bob Seton decides to stay in town and run for marshal, but since he is illiterate, he asks Cantrell to be his tutor. Cantrell is also running for marshal. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, toss in Roy Rogers, a youngster who wants to be a cowboy, is drawn to Wayne’s macho character and is the brother of Mary McCloud.

When Cantrell temporarily loses both girl and election to Wayne, he snaps and becomes a guerilla raider. Although this is the weakest plot motivation imaginable, readers are reminded that the bloody raider Quantrill did start out as a school teacher, and turned to raiding as the volatile mix of northern and southern viewpoints clashed during the era of the Missouri Compromise. When Lincoln gets elected, the whole thing blows up. It’s neighbor against neighbor.

"You ain’t fighting for the South or the North," Cantrell’s mother complains. "You’re fighting for the host of Darkness and the devil’s riding beside you."


Marshall Wayne is tasked to stop the raiders. He suspects his former tutor Cantrell is the leader. Meanwhile, finding a cache of Confederate uniforms, Cantrell expands his paramilitary band. When her banker father is killed in a mob riot, Mary’s heart hardens, and although she doesn’t love Cantrell, she agrees to marry him, unaware that he is the guerilla leader. Brother Roy Rogers, however, expresses his bitterness by joining the raiders who ambush the very posse that is after them. The marshal and "Doc" are driven off a cliff into a river with horse and carriage in a dramatic stunt, but they survive.

What a mess. The marshal gets so annoyed at the mayor that he quits. On his way on to Texas, he agrees to escort Mary to her husband’s guerilla camp. Mary at first refuses to believe that Cantrell is a bad guy and spurns Bob Seton’s attempt to woo her once again. When Bob is captured by the guerillas, Cantrell pretends to befriend him for Mary’s sake, but plans to execute the ex-marshal on his way out the door.

But Mary’s brother Fletch (Roy Rogers in one of his first movie roles) has a change of heart and frees John Wayne, who clonks Cantrell on the head and tries to sneak Mary out of the guerilla camp. A chase ensues. Cantrell’s Raiders follow the escapees right into Lawrence, creating a whole new motivation for the historic bloody raid. Mary’s brother is wounded and Gabby Hayes has to operate as ex-marshal Wayne whips the townspeople into a fiery and fictional defense. Cantrell, meanwhile, tries to recover his absentee wife. He bumps into his mother instead. She gets all the best lines.

"I thought I borned a man-child when I first heard ya squallin," she says, "but I didn’t. I borned a dirty, murdering snake that ‘s broke my heart to see it crawlin’ along. You’re no good, Will."

"I’ve killed a lot of men for saying less than that," he shouts back.

"You’ve killed a lot of men for saying nothing at all," she says. "Kansas is red with they’re bleedin’. I curse the day I ever had ya."

John Wayne, of course, guns down Cantrell in the penultimate scene as Lawrence, Kansas burns all around them. Then in an inappropriately upbeat ending, as the massacre winds down, the Doc saves Fletch and John Wayne gets the girl in a comic Scoopy-Doo style ending.

Okay, so we don’t really learn much about Jesse James. If anything, Roy Rogers plays the boy who is seduced into the guerilla band, as he did in at least two later films where he portrays Jesse James. This time, however, Roy sees the light and gets out of the bushwacker business before he becomes an outlaw.

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