"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dark Command (Republic, 1940)

Wayne gets to ride in a buggy with Trevor again.

In 1939, after Stagecoach, John Wayne was a star, and Herb Yates at Republic, who had Wayne under contract, decided to cash in, wheeling out the big guns and putting together a mega-budget blockbuster for him. Stagecoach lead Claire Trevor was booked to play the love interest and big name Walter Pidgeon borrowed from MGM to give weight, alongside Republic’s hot property Roy Rogers as the ingénu. Victor Young did the classy score and Jack Marta provided top class black & white photography. Raoul Walsh, just off the set of Warners’ The Roaring Twenties, was hired to direct. Walsh had of course given Duke his first big role (and the name John Wayne) in The Big Trail in 1930. At $750,000, Dark Command was the biggest Republic picture to date.

It’s a dramatic tale of Civil War Kansas. Wayne is a young illiterate Texan who rides with Gabby Hayes, traveling dentist. Wayne loosens teeth by punching men and Hayes whips them out. They arrive in Lawrence, where “Willliam Cantrell” (Pidgeon) is the schoolmaster, in love with la Trevor, who, however, likes but does not love him. Pidgeon is solid and authoritative in this (free) interpretation of William Quantrill. Marjorie Main is his rather sinister mother, like something out of The Turn of the Screw.

Educated Cantrell runs for election as marshal of Lawrence but is beaten by young Wayne, full of folksy wisdom. This turns Cantrell bitter and violent.

Trevor is the daughter of rich banker Porter Hall, with a Scotch accent right out of Cincinnati, and Roy Rogers is Hall’s son, Trevor’s bro. He wants to tote a gun and this gets him into big trouble when he shoots a Yankee in the barber’s shop. However, Cantrell brutally intimidates the jury to get into Trevor’s good books and Roy is acquitted. Cantrell runs slaves, then guns and once the war comes, he becomes a bloodthirsty looter. The young Texan hero Wayne leads the Northerners against him.

Most of Republic’s writers seem to have worked on it. Four are credited for the treatment of the 1938 WR Burnett novel The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad. The script ended up not bad, and it moves along at a good pace, but it is larded with quite a few patriotic lines suitable to 1939 and ‘40.

There are some pretty brutal stunts, including a wagon and horses driven over a cliff. Casual cruelty to animals was the norm then.

Towards the end Wayne gets to ride in a buggy with Trevor again but this time she won’t go with him to his ranch. She’s quite a lot posher than she was in Stagecoach, of course. To be brutally frank, my friends, in Stagecoach she was a whore (gasp).

The movie climaxes with the pretty spectacular raid on Lawrence and we get the final showdown between Pidgeon and Wayne (the real Quantrill was killed in a raid at the age of 27 more than two years after Lawrence but never mind that). Claire holds Duke’s hand and smiles. She doesn’t seem to mind a bit that her husband has been killed and Lawrence burned to the ground.

Republic was aiming to show that they could make A-pictures and fill movie theaters. They did, too, and the movie was a critical and a commercial success. But it still does look like a slightly 'lesser' Republic oater and is hardly a work of art. Still, it’s fun, action-packed and races along. Rogers is weak (they were trying him in a more serious role but it didn't gel) but the other actors are more than satisfactory.

Bung it in the DVD player, e-pards.


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