Dark Command: The John Wayne Origin Story
Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command, released in 1940 by Republic Pictures, takes place in Lawrence, Kansas at the dawn of the Civil War. It’s a reunion between Walsh and John Wayne, who was supposed to become a star with the release of Walsh’s Fox movie The Big Trail ten years earlier but didn’t. Dark Command is loosely based on Quantrill’s Raiders, a group of pro-Confederate guerrillas in the border states of Kansas and MIssouri during the Civil War, and in this film the raiders are led by Walter Pidgeon, normally a reliable fellow in the movies, best known for his pairings with Greer Garson at MGM in the ‘40s and his lovely tragic role in 1956’s Forbidden Planet.
While The Big Trail failed to make John Wayne a star, his inevitable breakthrough finally occurred in John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach. In Dark Command, Wayne is reunited with Claire Trevor, his co-star from that film. Here, like in Stagecoach, Trevor is billed above Wayne, so while Wayne’s star began to ascend in the Ford film, it had yet to exceed the height of Trevor’s.
The former Marion Morrison plays a man named Bob, and when I first heard him say the name, it seemed terribly wrong. “Bob? John Wayne can’t play a Bob.” What was fascinating, however, is “Bob” opens up the film as a bit of a grifter, starting fights so he can knock out the teeth of malcontents, leading them to visit and pay his dentist friend played by the legendary character actor George “Gabby” Hayes. I had to admit, I loved the silly premise, and John Wayne’s “Bob” makes for an interesting, directionless character for the young actor. He’s unsure of himself, uncomfortable in his own skin and almost unsure of how to move and walk with being such a tall person. Bob even briefly considers an opportunity in gunrunning because he’s chomping at the bit to do something, anything.
Pidgeon, meanwhile, plays frustrated schoolteacher Will Cantrell who yearns for Claire Trevor’s Mary McCloud, the daughter of the town’s most prominent banker. What frustrates him is that he wants to BE somebody. Will is at constant odds with his mother, who warns him that his desire for fame and power will wind him up in the grave just like his no-good father.
Cantrell’s mother is played by Marjorie Main, who would later rise to fame as the hootin’ and hollerin’ Ma Kettle, and here she plays so much against her type as the subdued and perpetually grieving widow it’s almost hard to believe it’s really her. Also against type is Roy Rogers as Trevor’s brother Fletch McCloud. There’s no Trigger to be seen and here he’s a hot-tempered Southern kid who commits murder in a rage. It’s hard to believe it’s really Roy Rogers.
When John Wayne’s Bob runs for Marshall and manages to win thanks to his Aw-Shucks demeanor and frank honesty about his illiteracy in contrast to his opponent Walter Pidgeon’s clear desire for power, Wayne transforms quickly into the John Wayne we all know: Stalwart, decent, and unwilling to compromise his principles even if it means winning the girl he loves to do so. Watching the film it occurred to me that I haven’t watched very many John Wayne films not directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks.
I’m a sucker for watching stars’ early performances and seeing how they evolve. I think it started when I was a little kid and my mother had bought us the Peanuts comic strip collections and how it took years for all the characters to take on their signature appearances and personalities. in Dark Command, John Wayne starts to become JOHN WAYNE.