Film and Plot Synopsis
Based on W.R. Burnett’s 1938 novel The Dark Command which fictionalizes the true-life event of the Lawrence, Kansas Massacre led by the infamous Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, Dark Command tells the story of Bob Seton, an illiterate settler traveling through Kansas when he decides to set up some roots after meeting the beautiful Mary McCloud. However, Bob finds himself in competition for Mary’s affections with William “Will” Cantrell, the local schoolteacher who has a secret life as a war profiter masquerading as a Confederate soldier. Ultimately, who will Mary choose, and who will survive when the Civil War breaks out and spreads into Kansas?
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‘Dark Command’ Movie Summary
Upon arriving in Lawrence, Kansas, Bob encounters Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor) and immediately becomes infatuated with her. Mary is the daughter of the owner of the local bank, Angus McCloud (Porter Hall), and sister to Fletcher “Fletch” McCloud (Roy Rogers). Bob finds that he has competition for Mary’s affections from local schoolteacher William “Will” Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). The town that they all live in is desperate for a town marshal. Both Bob and Will put in for the job and face each other in an election. Will tries to make political hay by pointing out that Bob is illiterate, but Bob wins the town over with his down-home attitude and is successfully elected to marshal.
Will takes the political defeat hard and decides to make a name for himself as an outlaw. He begins running guns and slaves for both sides of the political spectrum. Will even commits murder when someone dares to stand up against him. Mary and the townspeople are initially ignorant of Will’s dual life. Ultimately, Bob leads a posse to stop the smuggling and effectively prevents Will from smuggling in 500 rifles into the federal territory. During the action, Bob discovers that Will is involved in the smuggling and visits the schoolteacher to warn him to stop.
Not long after, Fletch gets into an argument with another man named Hale (Trevor Bardette) at Doc’s barber shop that results in Fletch shooting the man. Fletch is taken into custody by Bob and placed in jail. Angus and Mary plead with Bob to release Fletch so that they can help him escape justice. Mary even offers to marry Bob if he helps them, but Bob’s morals won’t allow him to shirk his duty. Mary turns to Will for help. Will and his gang go around the territory and physically assault all the potential jurors to influence their votes to not guilty. Will represents Fletch at trial, and successfully defends him. At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Buckner (Raymond Walburn) announces that the South has seceded from the Union and war has broken out.
As the war begins, Kansas is raided by smugglers and thugs, some of them led by Will. During one of Will’s raids, the smuggler acquires a crate of Confederate uniforms. Will has his men dress in the uniforms and continues his raiding. Back in town, Bob helps the men enlist in the army. At the same time, the town loses confidence in Angus’ bank due to their fears that he is sending money to the Confederate states. There is a run on the bank, and Angus tries to convince his customers to calm themselves. During the argument, Angus is shot and killed. Fletch blames Bob for his father’s death. In the aftermath, Mary decides to move away. Will proposes marriage to Mary to make her stay. Mary confesses that she does not love Will but agrees to marry him anyways. Mary is still ignorant of Will’s duplicitous nature.
You’re at the end of the road and the devil is beside ya… waiting. Mrs. Cantrell (Marjorie Main)
Immediately following the wedding, Will learns that his band of outlaws is about to be apprehended by Bob and his posse. Will leaves Mary to warn his men and takes Fletch along with them. Will’s men organize an ambush against Bob and his men. Bob and Doc manage to escape the ambush alive. Over the following weeks, Will’s men bleed the town dry of supplies and Bob is ineffective in stopping them. The town leaders decide to fire Bob as marshal. Bob quits instead. The townspeople form a mob to run Mary out of town. Bob stops the mob and agrees to take Mary to her husband outside of Kansas. During the journey, Bob confesses his love for Mary, who as a married woman rejects his advances. Bob rides off alone for Texas after getting Mary safely out of Kansas.
Mary makes it safely to Will and informs her husband that Bob helped her along the way. Will’s men capture Bob, and Will treats him as a friend as a pretense for Mary. Mary becomes disillusioned when she learns that Will is a war profiter and not a true Confederate soldier. Outside of Mary’s presence, Will arranges for Bob’s execution. Bob is freed by Fletch and given a gun after Fletch realizes that Will is a profiter only. Fletch asks Bob to get his sister to safety. Bob knocks Will unconscious, and Fletch, Bob, and Mary flee in a wagon. Will regains consciousness and rides off with his men in pursuit. Fletch is shot in the back during the chase.
Bob rides back to Lawrence and warns all the townspeople that Will and his men are right behind them. The town creates barricades and defends itself against Will and his men. Will’s mother (Marjorie Main), who opposes her son’s action, helps Mary provide medical care to Fletch while the fighting goes on around the town. Will splits off from the bulk of his men to find Mary. Bob follows him. When Will enters Mary’s house, his mother confronts him with a rifle. One of Will’s men shoots her through an open window. Mrs. Cantrell conveys her disappoint in her son with her dying words and her last act is to knock away Will’s gun to prevent her son from shooting Bob when the former marshal enters the house. Bob shoots Will dead.
In the aftermath, the Union militia arrives and chases off the remnants of Will’s men. Doc successfully patches up Fletch, and it is implied that Mary and Bob will become a couple.