The Dark Command
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Written by Grover Jones, Lionel Houser, F. Hugh Herbert and W.R. Burnett (Novel)
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Cinematography by Jack A. Marta
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Drama / Western
Claire Trevor as Mary McCloud
John Wayne as Bob Seton
Walter Pidgeon as William Cantrell
Roy Rogers as Fletch McCloud
George 'Gabby' Hayes as Doc Grunch
Porter Hall as Angus McCloud
Marjorie Main as Mrs. Cantrell
Raymond Walburn as Buckner
Joseph Sawyer as Bushropp
Helen MacKellar as Mrs. Hale
J. Farrell MacDonald as Dave
It’s 1861 and William Cantrell is a schoolteacher yearning with a desire to be the marshal of Lawrence, Kansas. His dreams are dashed when he is defeated by cowboy, Bob Seton. Will’s family has a checkered past, and he finally decides to give in, and turns to a life of crime, running guns and harboring slaves over the borders of neighboring states, against the pleadings of his mother. To make matters worse, not only has Bob beaten Will out of the job he wanted, he is also vying for the attentions of the woman that he loves, Mary McCloud. Mary’s father is a very rich banker named Angus, who leans towards the South in the coming Civil War. Both of Angus’ children have a wild streak and find trouble quite easily. Mary’s brother Fletch finds himself on the wrong side of Bob’s law when he accidentally causes the death of someone who was insulting his father, Angus. Bob has no choice but to take Fletch into custody to stand trial for the offense. Fletch had previously looked up to Bob as a hero, but now scorns him. Mary pleads with Bob to let Fletch go, going so far as to offer to marry him if he will free her brother. However, Bob is an honest man, and as much as it pains him, he has sworn to uphold the law, and he puts duty before his personal feelings.
The rift between Mary and Bob over Fletch’s arrest gives Will the opportunity he has been looking for to win back Mary’s affections. By day he plays the law-abiding citizen, supporting Bob. At night, he and his group of thugs ride about, terrorizing the members of the jury until they are too frightened to render an impartial verdict, finding Fletch innocent of the crime and set free.
When the Civil War breaks out, Will sees another opportunity when he captures a load of Confederate uniforms. He dresses his band of thugs in them and begins raiding and looting the surrounding towns. Will’s wealth is amassing quickly, and many of the townspeople, mostly those that side with the North are becoming suspicious of Will. It also doesn’t help that Lawrence is the one town in the area that has not been attacked by the 'Confederate' raiders.
Tensions between the town’s civilians are increasing due to the war, with many siding with the Union, and a minority siding with the southern states. Mary’s father Angus, the banker, sides with the Confederacy, and that makes him a target for many of the Union supporting townsfolk. The townsfolk attempt a run on the bank, attempting to pull all of their money out at once, which would bankrupt the institution. When Angus confronts the townspeople, it turns into more of a mob scene, and violence isn’t far behind, winding up with the death of Angus.
With the death of her father at the hands of Union allies, and believing Will to be a 'good' Confederate soldier, Mary agrees to marry Will. However, many of the townspeople are growing more and more suspicious of Will, with several figuring out that he is behind the rogue Confederate raids on the surrounding towns. With Will being away, the townspeople focus their animosity towards Mary instead. Bob is disgusted with the actions of the townspeople and decides to quit his job and leave town. However, before he does he learns that the townspeople are putting together a mob to run Mary out of town. Bob goes to warn her, and beg her to leave Will, but she refuses, and instead asks Bob to escort her to Will’s camp. Bob reluctantly agrees, knowing that will at least get her out of town and away from the mob.
On the way to Will’s camp, Bob again begs her to leave Will and come away with him to Texas, but Mary again refuses, remaining true to her husband. Once they arrive, Mary is reunited with her husband and her brother Fletch, as he had gone to join Will’s band. Once she arrives however, all of her fears are proven to be true. She finds that Will’s band of 'soldiers' is really a band of outlaws, and Will is living in opulence. The final straw occurs when she learns that Will has ordered that Bob be arrested and hung, and his band is soon going to mobilize to strike at Lawrence. With the help of her brother Fletch, she helps Bob escape, and they ride together to Lawrence to warn the townspeople. In the final dramatic battle, Will’s mother is killed trying to stop the madman her son has become, and Bob confronts and kills Will as Lawrence burns.
The film is loosely based on the real events of Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War. Although not depicted in the film, the real Quantrill’s Raiders included famed outlaws Jesse James and Frank James and the Younger brothers.
This is the only film that stars both John Wayne and Roy Rogers.
During filming, production was halted while Claire Trevor was ill with strep throat and could not perform.