Dark Command: John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and the Butchering of Civil War History

by Brett Schulte on June 23, 2008 · 3 comments

darkcommand1940 Dark Command: John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and the Butchering of Civil War HistoryDark Command, a John Wayne and Claire Trevor vehicle, is loosely based on the Civil War career of William Clarke Quantrill, the Confederate guerrilla operating mostly in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War. When I write loosely, I should probably capitalize, bold, and underline that word. While the movie is entertaining if you like Westerns, it has very little to do with accurate history.

I bought the DVD last week and managed to watch it last night. I watched this one a long time ago on either Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics, and a recent post about Dark Command over on Michigan Civil War blog caused me to make an impulse purchase. I vaguely remembered the plot and the historical inaccuracies, had thought it was a fun movie after my initial viewing, and wanted to see it again.

Wayne and Trevor respectively play an illiterate Texas cowboy named Bob Seton and an affluent daughter of an affluent Southern banker named Mary McCloud in Lawrence, Kansas. Roy Rogers (Fletch McCloud, Mary’s younger brother) and Gabby Hays (Wayne’s sidekick) have supporting roles, while Walter Pidgeon plays the role of William “Cantrell”. Seton and Cantrell vie for the affections of Mary while all are living in Lawrence throughout the movie. Interestingly, when war breaks out, Texan Seton is in charge of Union militia, while Ohio-born Cantrell leads Confederate guerrillas. Allegiances are formed and broken several times among the main characters and your typical Western running gunfights occur throughout. I don’t want to give this away and I won’t, but I will say the climax involves a famous historical event (don’t look at the tags on this post or you’ll know what that event was).

Now that we’ve covered the main plot of the movie, let’s move in depth into the topic of how and why Dark Command does such a poor job in the area of historical accuracy. Let’s focus on Pidgeon’s character of Will Cantrell, comparing and contrasting the character with the real William Clarke Quantrill.

First, I’ll give a brief biography of William Clarke Quantrill. I am reticent about using Wikipedia as a source for anything, but for the purposes of this blog entry it will do. William Clarke Quantrill was a Confederate guerrilla leader during the Civil War. Despite being born in Ohio and living in a Union family, he grew to hate abolitionist beliefs. After a stint as a teamster for the U.S. Army on Albert Sidney Johnston’s 1858 Mormon Expedition and an attempt at becoming a professional gambler, he settled in Lawrence, Kansas in 1859 and taught school. When the war began, he “may have” joined the Missouri State Guard, but by the end of 1861 he had formed a Confederate guerrilla band that grew from a dozen men to at one point almost 450 men for a brief time. Quantrill was killed in Kentucky in the spring of 1865 while leading another raid.

Please note that the rest of this entry contains SPOILERS, and if you want to watch the movie first do so now before continuing to read.

Now that we have the basics of Quantrill’s life down, we can talk about the things the movie gets right, and the many it doesn’t. Will Cantrell in the movie is from Ohio and is teaching school in Lawrence prior to the Civil War. These two facts and his role as a guerrilla in the Civil War are pretty much the only things this movie gets right. However, he appears to have no loyalty to anyone but himself. The film depicts Cantrell shooting slave owners in Kansas, “freeing” their slaves, and then turning around in Missouri and reselling them. When Civil War does break out, Cantrell basically collects a group of mercenaries who loot and pillage supporters of both sides. Cantrell eventually settles on the Confederacy by chance when his men steal a shipment of Confederate uniforms. His guerrillas are depicted as lawless thieves intent on simply stealing as much loot from as many people as possible.

John Wayne’s character Bob Seton, who plays a LARGE role in this film, is entirely fictional. He battles Cantrell to be the new marshal of Lawrence, and plays a large role in defending Lawrence from Cantrell’s inevitable raid. Although Seton is a Texan, the film establishes early on that Seton is patriotic as he listens to Cantrell’s school children singing a patriotic song. Later, he defends a Tennessean from Union men intent on driving the man out of town, saying they needed to remember he was an American first and foremost.

The sack of Lawrence comes about in this movie because Bob Seton rescues Mary from Cantrell, finds out Cantrell plans to loot the city for his personal gain, and rushes back to warn the town. The militia had foolishly been sent away, and Seton rallies the townspeople to defend Lawrence from Cantrell’s attack. There is no mention of military age men being taken from their homes and killed, though to be fair this sort of depiction wasn’t going to happen on film anyway due to the Hays Code of 1930 prohibiting “indecency” in Hollywood films. As the townspeople hole up in a church, Cantrell and his men burn the town. So Lawrence does indeed burn in this film, but not at all for the reasons which would be presented had this been any kind of historical account. Cantrell ends up dying during the attack at the hands of Seton when he tries to find Mary in at her home outside of Lawrence.

The movie was based on the 1938 novel The Dark Command by W.R. Burnett. It looks like the book was never reprinted in paperback form, so I may have to get a ragged copy of the original hardback just to see where more of the historical inaccuracies originate. Has anyone read The Dark Command? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of the book.

END SPOILERS

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I found Dark Command to be a fun little Western. It was a big hit for Republic Pictures as they struggled to keep up with Hollywood’s more powerful studios. You get John Wayne in prime John Wayne form, Claire Trevor reprising her Stagecoach role as his love interest, Roy Rogers in an early appearance, not quite in hero form just yet, and even “Gabby” Hayes as a dentist/barber/doctor! And of course Walter Pidgeon is saddled with the role which is the root of most of the historical inaccuracies. I highly recommend the film for its fun factor, but I also see it as a great way to encourage people to read the REAL history of Quantrill and other guerrillas such as “Bloody” Bill Anderson. Just don’t believe everything you see in a Hollywood movie!


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tabitha July 25, 2008 at 4:53 pm

I was wondering if you could help me find some information. I have a homesteaders deed for Thomas W. Cantrell. I was thinking he could be the son of William M. Cantrell, the civil war veteran. I’ve looked everywhere but I can’t find any relevant information. Do you think you could possibly help me? Thanks so much!

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admin July 25, 2008 at 5:06 pm

Tabitha,

Thanks for stopping by! I wish I could help, but genealogy isn’t my my strong suit. I would usually be able to at least point you in the direction of someone who might know, but I’m grasping at straws on this one. You might try speaking with Clark Kenyon at the Camp Pope Bookshop:

http://www.camppope.com/contact.htm

He might be able to put you into contact with a Cantrell expert who could help.

Brett

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