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Dark Command (Blu-ray Review)

24 Jun, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Walter Pidgeon, Roy Rogers.

Given a W.R. Burnett novel as its source plus direction by action specialist Raoul Walsh just before he began spending the next dozen years at Warner Bros., modest Republic Pictures probably felt justified shelling out $750,000 for its biggest production in a long time — though it always helps when there’s some financial return, which did materialize in this case. Though the casting headlines were John Wayne when he was still basking in the recent glow of his star-maker Stagecoach plus harmoniously paired Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor for the third time in two years, there are some unexpected bonuses. One standout is the opportunity this epic affords to see Roy Rogers playing what used to be called a “young hothead” — the only time, to my knowledge, he ever veered away from his standard image of singing and chafing his knuckles on the jawbones of ‘B’-movie bad guys (ringer appearances in Hollywood Canteen and Son of Paleface don’t count). And yet, the picture is finally stolen by Walter Pidgeon, who was between MGM gigs and a couple years away from settling into that more familiar image of the Mr. Miniver who got proper Mrs. Miniver into the sack every night.

The story deals with something called “Cantrell’s Raiders,” with Pidgeon cast as a schoolteacher/marauder named William Cantrell. This naturally confused me as a young adolescent (I started watching Command regularly at age 13) because even ‘F’-level Civil War buffs knew of (William) Quantrill’s Raiders and the abolitionst-vs.non- mayhem these troublemakers exacerbated — part of it being the attack on Lawrence, Kan., that’s a key scene of Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (the best movie on the subject if you see Criterion’s vastly improved director’s cut). Still, amid historical embellishments, broad humor and those casting coups — Gabby Hayes, billed as “George” is in this, too — the movie gives a pretty good account of the tensions that prevailed at the time.

Gabby plays a former physician who has lost his way a la Stagecoach’s Oscar-winning Thomas Mitchell — though, in this case, it’s more of a natural mental block, rather than booze, that has made him blank out about his former skills and, as an alternative, go into dentistry. Texan Wayne is his associate, with Trevor and Rogers as sibling Southerners in Kansas who find a friend in pro-South Pidgeon/Cantrell — for a while. As schoolmaster, the latter is among Lawrence’s super-literate, so he isn’t too crazy about being beaten for local office by Wayne, who had previously hired him for brush-up instruction about how to push a noun against a verb in public speaking forums. Matters come to more than a head, including a killing perpetrated by Rogers (another surprise) whose performance is acceptable enough here to make you wonder what kind of career he might have had if carrying the “King of the Cowboys” moniker hadn’t proved all-transcendent and a better way to engender a roast beef chain (complete with what used to be termed a “holster of fries”). 

For a Republic release that began showing up on TV when Eisenhower was still president, Olive’s is, visually speaking, a pleasing enough no-frills rendering that remains tightly spun over 94 minutes. We get a lot of familiar faces in the cast, including a solid and serious performance by Marjorie Main as Pidgeon’s unhappy mother (she’s forced to pose as his housekeeper) and Raymond Walburn in a performance that might have been borderline broad even in one of the Preston Sturges farces that occasionally employed him in made-to-order fashion. It’s curious to see Hayes as sidekick to Wayne instead of Rogers, with whom his screen pairings were frequent (there’s even a magnificent shot on one of the three HBO When It Was a Game documentaries of Roy and Gabby at a baseball game — possibly even the World Series — in full sartorial splendor. In real life, Hayes is said to have been something of a literate dandy — and when I went onto IMDb.com to check his credits, I was convulsed to see Hayes quoted as not even liking Westerns. Man, that would have been something like John C. Holmes saying he didn’t like sex scenes.

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