Dark Command, budgeted at over 700,000 dollars, was only the second "A" feature ever made by Republic Pictures, and it proved that the studio, known for its B-Westerns and serials, could deliver a movie as high in quality in all departments as the best work of Warner Bros. or Paramount. John Wayne had just become a major star in Stagecoach and Republic felt compelled to come up with a vehicle to do justice to his new fame and audience. The studio bought the rights to a book about the life of notorious Civil War-era renegade William Clarke Quantrill written by W.R. Burnett, borrowed Walter Pidgeon from MGM, and acquired the services of Raoul Walsh (then the top action director at Warner Bros.), and threw in the services of two of its top B-Western talents, Roy Rogers and George "Gabby" Hayes. The resulting film was, along with John Ford's Rio Grande, one of the finest action films ever to come out of Republic (or any other studio in 1940), and, along with Ford's The Sun Shines Bright, also one of the studio's best dramas in terms of the quality of the acting. John Wayne retains the quiet energy that he showed as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, in a complex role that shows him evolving convincingly from an impetuous roughneck into a respectable, duty-bound enforcer of the law, torn by his own feelings for the people around him who are sometimes hurt by his actions. Walter Pidgeon gives one of the best performances of his career as schoolteacher who hides a streak of megalomania and psychosis. Claire Trevor gives a surprisingly gritty performance as a selfish woman who outgrows her lusts and prejudices. Roy Rogers turns in the best acting performance of his career as a spoiled, headstrong rich boy who discovers that there's more to life and living than he thought. Marjorie Main almost steals the movie from all of them as a conscience-stricken mother, tortured by what her son has done. Even George "Gabby" Hayes rises to the occasion with a performance that treads a fine line between comedy and drama. What's more, director Walsh and the Republic production team have forged a movie that is not only exciting from beginning to end, but manages to intersect, in plot, characterization, and images, with the best elements of Santa Fe Trail, Gone With the Wind, and even Birth of a Nation. Indeed, much of Dark Command crosses paths with the plot of Santa Fe Trail, without the latter movie's awkward jumps from drama to comedy, or any of its pretentions, either.
by Bruce Eder review