21 April 2004 | theowinthrop
Quantrell, "Bloody Kansas" and W.R.Burnett.
If the South can make a case that the abolitionist figure John Brown was not a martyr but a maniac, murderer, and traitor, the North can point to the so-called pro-Southern guerilla leader William Clarke Quantrell or Quantrill as a bloodthirsty killer and thief, and the trainer of a generation of criminals (i.e., his followers included Cole Younger and Frank James...and maybe Jesse James too). The fact is that Bloody Kansas was where the violence that became our Civil War began, and it lasted there for more than the four years of the actual war. There are few movies that tackle this story. SEVEN ANGRY MEN and SANTA FE TRAIL gave us versions of Brown's story. There is a film called THE JAYHAWKER (with Fess Parker and Jeff Chandler) about a pro-Southern fighter in Kansas. And there are about four mentioning Quantrell, though none are totally factual. Most though do touch on the one event of his career that everyone recalls: the massacre at the town of Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863. Lawrence was the center of the abolitionist movement in the state, and it's leading citizen was James Lane, a particularly violent anti-slavery fanatic who became first Senator from the state. Quantrell was responsible for ordering the deaths of nearly 150 men and boys, but failed to get Lane (whom he wanted to burn at the stake) - the Senator managed to hide in the field of corn in the back of his farm. Quantrell barely survived the war - he was shot in the back, trying to flee Federal troops in Kentucky where he had gone in a ridiculous plan to reach Washington and assassinate Lincoln (little did he know someone else had similar plans).
This film culminates in the attack on Lawrence - but here Quantrell is beaten back, when Seaton (John Wayne) reaches the town to warn the citizens that the guerillas are on their way. In short, DARK COMMAND shows that the sacking of Lawrence was a failure. Regretably it was a success.
Quantrell (here Cantrell) was a teacher at one point of his career, but he was also a thief and murderer before he found he could turn himself into a guerilla chief. His patriotism is still questioned. Southern leaders like General Sterling Price never fully trusted him - they suspected his motives and goals, and did not like the unregimented nature of his followers. Still, however, they let him have his semi-independent command. To be fair the North too could have violent "allies" in their cause. Witness the actions, in 1862, of General John Turchin, who let his Federal troops loot a southern town. Turchin was sidetracked for awhile, but back on the battlefield later in the war.
Keeping in mind,then, that the film does take liberties with the historical record, it remains the best film about Quantrell. It does capture the spirit of sectionalism that rent Kansas society apart, and it does capture the nature of Quantrell and his opportunism. In Walter Pigeon it has an interesting surprise. Pigeon is (with Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone and Robert Young) one of the leading second string leading men at MGM in the 1930s and 1940s, usually in comedies. In his case he also was teamed (by accident, as it turned out) with Greer Garson in a series of films from MRS. MINIVER onward. Here he has one of his rare western roles (another is as the sheriff in THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST with Eddy and MacDonald), and one of his few villains (another would be Morbeus in FORBIDDEN PLANET). He is quite effective - witness the scene when he addresses the jury at the trial of Roy Rogers - a jury he has individually intimidated in a nightrider disguise - repeating the word "pain" again and again. This performance is the central one, though Wayne's Seaton is suitably relaxed and a balance to Pigeon. Roy Roger's young McCloud is a surprise too - as he shows a hurt anger in much of the film. Highly unusual for him. Claire Trevor gives her normal good performance - she has a nice chemistry with Wayne, and also does well with Pigeon. In the support one can name Gabby Hayes, Marjorie Main (ultimately a sad performance, reminding one of her similarly unhappy mother of a monster in DEAD END), and Porter Hall as the stubborn banker father of Rogers and Trevor. Even Raymond Walburn has some funny moments, one as a non-paying customer of Hayes.
Finally, take note that this film is based on a tale by W.R.Burnett. Forgotten by most of the public, he was an above average pulp novelist who gave the world LITTLE CAESAR, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT. Usually he did prototypes of film noir (especially WHITE HEAT), so DARK COMMAND is a pleasant surprise that he could handle westerns as well as crime.