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Dark Command

Dark Command(1940)

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teaser Dark Command (1940)

Before releasing Dark Command (1940), Republic Pictures was known mainly for cranking out B-Westerns and quickie, crowd-pleasing serials. But Dark Command's $700,000 budget placed it squarely in the A-Western category.This was John Wayne's first film after finally achieving stardom in John Ford's classic, Stagecoach (1939), and his standing as a major draw was solidified when Dark Command hit it big at the box office. Wayne had been hustling around in cut-rate pictures (many of which had been made by Republic) for several years, so it must have been a relief to realize that Stagecoach wasn't just a fluke.

Wayne plays Bob Seton, a Lawrence, Kansas cowboy who is rather unexpectedly elected to the office of town marshal. The loser in the election, an ambitious schoolteacher named Will Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon), is outraged that an uneducated man like Seton could defeat him. Then, to make matters worse, Seton starts falling for a woman named Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), who Cantrell also loves. When Mary's brother (Roy Rogers) is tried for murder at Seton's behest, Cantrell sets into motion a series of events that result in much bloodshed.

Easily the most unforgettable moment in Dark Command is an amazing stunt orchestrated by Yakima Canutt. Canutt and several other stunt men slid down a chute into a river forty feet below...along with a wagon and an entire team of horses. It's an indelible sight for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that the horses were put in great danger for the sake of a piece of celluloid. This stunt, and several others that ended up killing animals in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), alerted the ASPCA that major changes needed to take place in the handling of animals while filming motion pictures. Today, any picture that includes animals has an ASPCA member on hand to keep the filmmakers in line.

Dark Command was Republic's ambitious attempt to take advantage of Wayne's new-found fame, and major studios began to reconsider him as leading man material when the film became a hit. But Cecil B. DeMille, for one, discovered that Wayne wasn't about to forget any previous slights now that he had a bit of weight to throw around.

In 1936, when DeMille was casting The Plainsman, he was supposed to meet with Wayne about a possible role in the film. "I sat outside that bastard's office," Wayne later said, "and I could look in there and see him just thinking. So after about an hour - the son of a bitch kept me waiting that long - he came out and said, "Well, I'm going for lunch." When reminded that he had an appointment to meet with Wayne, DeMille offhandedly invited the actor to come along, in a manner that Wayne felt was openly disrespectful. At lunch, DeMille told Wayne that he liked him pretty well in The Big Trail (1930), but "a lot of water had run under the bridge since then."

Then, in 1940, when Wayne was the new toast of Hollywood, DeMille politely called him to have a print of Dark Command sent to his office. "Make him come here if he wants to see it," Wayne told Republic executive Sol Siegel. "Just tell him that a lot of water has run under the bridge since I'd seen him last." Not surprisingly, Wayne and DeMille never got around to working together.

Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Screenplay: Grover Jones, Lionel Houser, F. Hugh Herbert, Jan Fortune (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett)
Cinematography: Jack Marta
Music: Victor Young
Editor: Murray Seldeen, William Morgan
Art Design: John Victor Mackay
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Bob Seton), Claire Trevor (Mary McCloud), Walter Pidgeon (William Cantrell), Roy Rogers (Fletch McCloud), George "Gabby" Hayes (Doc Grunch), Porter Hall (Angus McCloud), Marjorie Main (Mrs.Cantrell), Raymond Walburn (Buckner), Joe Sawyer (Bushropp), Helen MacKellar (Mrs. Hale), J. Farrell MacDonald (Dave), Trevor Bardette (Hale).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara

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