Kansas, in the days before the Civil War (but not too many days
Doc Grunch (Gabby Hayes), dentist and barber, and his associate Bruce
Seton (John Wayne) travel through the small town of Lawrence, when Bruce
stumbles upon lovely Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), daughter of bank owner
Angus McCloud (Porter Hall), and decides he wants to stay and eventually
marry her ... not that she is in the least bit impressed though by a
simple cowhand who can neither read nor write and has no proper job. So
Bruce takes evening classes with the local teacher Will Cantrell (Walter
Pidgeon) and applies for the job of Marshall of Lawrence. Problem is of
course that Cantrell wants to become Marshall as well - and he also wants
to marry Mary.
It seems though that Bruce beats Cantrell to both, he defeats him in
the election for Marshall, and he slowly wins Mary's affection and love.
Cantrell is geting more and more desperate, so he starts a sideline in
slave-trading and gun-running, and he and his gang are way too slick to
ever being caught by the Marshall and his men, even though Bruce before
long gets a good idea that Cantrell is behind everything.
Then though, Mary's young hothead brother Fletch (Roy Rogers) shoots a
man who has just insulted the South (the McCloud family is originally from
the South) in front of witnesses, and Bruce has to arrest him and has to
resist her pleas to set him free or help him escape ... and ultimately it
seems to be the gallows for Fletch. Now though, Cantrell sees his big
chance, as he, a learned lawyer, passionately defends Fletch in court -
and he uses his gang to intimidate the members of the jury ... and
ultimately and seemingly against all odds, Fletch is pronounced innocent,
which makes him a free man and makes Mary agree to become Cantrell's wife
Then the Civil War breaks out, and Kansas is somehow caught between the
lines ... and Cantrell finds a new business venture for himself and his
men: Dressed in uniforms of the Confederate army, Cantrell and gang are
pillaging villages all over Kansas, with Marshall Bruce and his posse
desperatly and unsuccessfully trying to catch up with them. At home
though, Cantrell still poses not only as a respectable citizen but also as
a real officer of the Southern army, something even his wife Mary
believes, so she pays no mind in him being away for weeks on end.
Eventually, even Fletch joins Cantrell's gang, believing he's with the
real Southern army ...
Then though public opinion shifts in Lawrence, and suddenly the
populace believes it's no longer safe to have their money deposited in
McCloud's bank, simply because he is a Southener, which eventually leads
to a turmoil during which McCloud is shot, and Bruce only just saves Mary
from a similar fate.
Bruce and Mary both decide to leave Lawrence for good, she to live with
her husband and he to settle somewhere West where there is no civil war
... however, when he stops by Cantrell's place to drop off Mary, he gets a
bit too nosey for Cantrell's comfort and is incarcrerated. Eventually
though, Fletch and Mary both realize that Cantrell is actually no army
officer at all but the leader of the pillagers, so they break Bruce free
and make an escape - during which Fletch is wounded - which eventually
brings them back to Lawrence ... just in time to warn the citizens about
the approaching pillagers, to bring the women and children to safety, and
call back the local vigilante army that is looking for the pillagers in
quite another neck of the wood.
Ultimately, Lawrence goes up in flames, but the vigilantes defeat the
pillagers and during the fight Cantrell is killed, and thanks to proper
preparation, the losses among the citizens were kept to a minimum - and
Doc Grunch has saved Fletch's life and regained his self esteem to be a
surgeon once more.
All's well that ends well !
Despite being produced by (comparatively) small Republic Pictures,
mainly a producer of B-pictures and serials, Dark Command is
definitely an A-list feature, starring Claire Trevor and Republic
contract player John Wayne, who have just been in Stagecoach,
Wayne's breakthrough, and directed by A-list director Raoul Walsh. The
outcome is what you'd come to expect, a Western/Civil War-drama on an epic
scale as Walsh knew how to handle them, with fine performances of all of
the involved, even Roy Rogers, Republic's newest singing cowboy
star in an unique breakaway from leading man status.
The film though is not perfect, the script has a few shortomings and
unnecessary shbplots that slow down the proceedings, but on the whole,
it's quite solid Western entertainment.