Dark Command. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Written by Grover Jones, Lionel Houser, F. Hugh Herbert, and Jan Fortune. Based on the novel, The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad, by W. R. Burnett.
Release Date: April 15, 1940.
The McWhirter family is cancelling its Amazon Prime subscription, so I’m racing through a handful of Civil War movies I’d placed in my queue. The Conspirator was up first but the next few reach back further into Hollywood history. Today’s movie, Dark Command, is an interesting case because it focuses on Kansas and especially William Quantrill (which it mistakenly calls “Cantrell”). It also stars a young John Wayne and his charisma propels the film. Unfortunately, his presence also ensures this is really just a Western grafted onto a Civil War story.
The plot’s a little too complicated, but I’ll try to summarize it briefly. Texas tough guy Bob Seton (Wayne) moves to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1858, where he finds the town divided between northern and southern settlers. He also falls in love with Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), the daughter of a local slaveholding businessman. Quantrill (Walter Pidgeon) is the local schoolteacher and he’s also in love with McCloud. There’s an election for Marshall and, although Quantrill’s the favorite, Seton’s Texas charm beats him. This sends Quantrill over the edge and he begins engaging in increasingly violent criminal activities to enrich himself and improve his social standing. First he kidnaps slaves, then runs guns, and finally, after the Civil War breaks out, he leads a band of guerrillas on a path of destruction. Seton tries to stop him but loses his position after Quantrill wipes out almost his entire militia command and marries McCloud to rub it in. After seizing a plantation in Missouri, Quantrill invites McCloud to join him and Seton escorts her. Once she sees what kind of a man her husband really is, McCloud escapes with Seton to Lawrence. Quantrill pursues them, leading to the Lawrence Massacre but also his own death at the hands of Seton. The white hat beats the black hat and wins the girl.
I’m sure those of you who know anything about “Bleeding Kansas” already spotted several historical errors. Quantrill’s biographical details are factually and chronologically all over the place—for starters, he most definitely did not die at Lawrence. There are lots of other mistakes too, some of which are truly baffling. Quantrill’s brief foray into slave kidnapping is especially confusing—so much so that I’m not really sure what was happening onscreen. We see him and his raiders ride up to slaveholding Kansas farms and inform the black fieldworkers they’re free. Then it cuts to Quantrill in Missouri, handing the supposedly freed people over to a white man saying, “that should get about $300 each.” I thought he was simply selling previously enslaved African Americans back into slavery but he then declares he’s getting out of the business because it’s “too risky. Fella named John Brown got himself hung for it.” Wait, what?
Nitpicking aside, what’s really interesting about this film is how it reflects the historical thinking of its time. You might think I’m going to go off on the Lost Cause again (and it surely shows up in a few places here), but there’s another prominent Civil War narrative that holds sway over Dark Command: the Revisionist School. Civil War scholars in the first half of the 20th Century, motivated by the carnage of World War 1, argued the American sectional conflict was not a clash of ideologies or even regional subcultures, but simply a colossal failure of political leadership. Neither side had a real moral advantage in the resulting war because both had failed to avoid it through compromise.
Dark Command expresses its Revisionist leanings by making everyone victims of two types of people: needlessly belligerent ideologues (mostly northern, showing the film’s slight Lost Cause leanings), and men preying on the conflict those ideologues create, like Quantrill. We don’t meet any actual Federals or Confederates, but the film goes out of its way to place Quantrill outside Civil War politics. It does this most clearly in a recruiting speech he makes after the war breaks out. “You’re not fighting for the North. You’re not fighting for the South,” he tells his potential guerrillas, “But you’re fighting to take what’s coming to you!” Furthermore, Quantrill’s historic southern sympathies are brushed away as the result of his seizing a collection of Confederate uniforms and telling his men to wear them to legitimize his command. There’s also a strong sense that most of the people in Lawrence have no real stake in the sectional crisis and their town is only a battleground because of a small number of rabble-rousers invested a remote conflict in “the East.” Indeed, making the Lawrence Massacre (or the film’s tame version of it) the result of a love triangle instead of the city’s anti-slavery leanings makes it the ultimate act of empty violence and effectively robs one of the Civil War’s cruelest acts of its political context.
But I shouldn’t overstate the film’s historical point of view, because I think the script is mostly confused. There’s a heavy strain of pacifism in some parts—McCloud’s father (Porter Hall) is constantly urging his son Fletch (Roy Rogers) not to carry a gun until that same gun kills the father—but the script also celebrates Seton’s skill as a bruiser and has him win election by smirking, “A Marshall should shoot first and talk later.” Seton also comes across as fiercely patriotic—we’re introduced to him punching a series of northerners for insulting Franklin Pierce and later he’s almost brought to tears by Quantrill’s students singing “My Country ’tis of Thee”—but really doesn’t take sides in the war. I think this inconsistency is partially due to the number of writers involved. I’d be curious to read the original novel because I suspect the overarching Revisionism comes from its pages and the four(!) Hollywood writers credited with the script each added their own flair, obscuring motivations and politics in favor of a romantic Western. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see this early attempt at tackling one of the Civil War Era’s most complicated and tragic circumstances. Someone really ought to pick the idea back up. You could make one heck of a movie about Lawrence or Quantrill with the right person behind the camera.
- I’ve been pretty hard on the film’s historical perspective but it deserves high praise for making absolutely no effort to romanticize the guerrillas. Subsequent films would go light on irregulars and even characterize them as the war’s most morally noble combatants.
- George “Gabby” Hayes plays Seton’s sidekick: a dentist who pulls the teeth Seton punches loose on the way to Kansas. Hayes excelled at these kind of comic roles and, next to Wayne, he’s the most fun to watch.
- Does it mention slavery: Due to its Revisionist leanings, the film characterizes the war as a clash between two warring factions, leaving slavery out of the question, but the institution does appear in two important ways. There’s a subplot in which Fletch murders a northerner for insulting southern chivalry. That northerner does a pretty good job describing the “Free labor, free men” ideology and accuses southerners of being lazy and cheap because of slavery. The institution makes a more blatant appearance in the McCloud home, which looks like a set right out of Gone With the Wind, featuring a Hattie McDaniel-style “House Mammy” and an enslaved doorman named Tom. Both have almost no lines and no one comments on their presence in any significant way.
Next Entry: Abraham Lincoln