“Dark Command” is one of the tree pictures John Wayne made with Claire Trevor; the others were “Stagecoach” and “Allegheney Rising,” both in 1939.
Republic, known as one of the Poverty Row studios, invested a bigger budget than the usual, and hired old pro Raoul Walsh to direct and Victor Young to compose music for this period adventure, set in 1860 Kansas. They also borrowed MGM's accomplished actor Walter Pidgeon to play John Wayne's rival.
Walsh knew the Duke back from the days when they made “The Big Trail.”
Other familiar faces in the cast included Gabby (formerly known as George) Hayes, the then B-cowboy-star Roy Rogers, Harry Woods, Glenn Strange, and Al Bridge.
The first reel is rather amusing, depicting Wayne's Bob Seton as the traveling companion of dentist Doc Grunch (Hayes). The division of labor between them is that Seton gets into fights, making sure that his blows send his opponents to the dentist's chair.
Seton's frivolous existence changes when he decides to improve on his lot, by taking reading and writing lessons, and setting his goal as no less than becoming a U.S. marshal. Though ambitious, he remains nave and shares his career plans with Will Cantrell (Pidgeon), a schoolteacher considered to be the unopposed candidate for the desirable job.
Seton wins the elections and a resentful Cantrell becomes a gunrunner and then a leader of a guerrilla bunch that terrorizes the regionthis is, after all, pre-Civil War America.
In most of his films, John Wayne doesn't let women prevent him from accomplishing a task he is committed to, and this one is no exception. In Dark Command,” marshal Seton is forced to arrest the kid brother Fletch (Roy Rogers) of the respected town lady Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor) kid brother and bring him to trial for murder. Mary is willing to give herself, if he releases her brother but he refuses.
Marry goes on to marry the schoolteacher Cantrell, not because she loves him, but because he is willing to defend her brother. Plot is full of twists and turns, with the marshal first captured by Cantrell, then escaping and vowing to avenge. At the end, after a shoot out with Cantrell, the marshal asks Mary to start a new life with him in Texas, just as the Ringo Kid asked Dallas (Claire Trevor) at the end of “Stagecoach.”
Cantrell's character is reportedly a largely fictionalized version of the actual Charles Quantril. Some humor is inserted into the saga. When marshal Seton is told that a fellow by the name of Shakespeare once said, “All well than ends well,” he replies, “He must have come from Texas, we have been saying that for years.”
Oscar Nominations: 2
Interior Decoration (b/w): John Victor Mackay
Score (Original): Victor Young
The winner of the Interior Decoration Oscar was “Pride and Prejudice” and of the Original Score “Pinocchio.”