In Jayhawkers (1959), Jeff Chandler is Luke Darcy, Fess Parker Cam Bleeker, and Nicole Maurey Jeanne Dubois. The movie takes place prior to the Civil War. Darcy is the leader of a band of gun-toting roughriders who follow his painfully strict orders to the letter. He is more than mere trouble to the Governor of Kansas Territory as well as the Army. He is a true force to reckon with. The narrative setting is an interesting one in terms of 19th century American history. Both slavers and abolitionists were heatedly fighting over what kind of state "Bleeding" Kansas would eventually become, free or not. Among the warring parties were Jayhawkers, northerners by origin. It might seem, therefore, that they were the good guys. But when they swarm into towns with guns blazing, heedless of all men, women, and children, any semblance to goodness vanishes. In reality, they were, as depicted here, power-hungry fierce fanatics.
Naturally, the movie is not a history lesson. As such it would have been rather inaccurate. No doubt there were men like Darcy. John Brown and William Quantrill also come to mind. And the various towns in Kansas, especially Lawrence, as well as unfortunate individuals singled out for the sake of being turned into examples, did in fact suffer terrible outrages. The main point is, nevertheless, that the story is a good one, if a little complicated. It has to do with Cam Bleeker, an escaped convict, hired by the Governor to bring Darcy down in exchange for his own freedom. He has a great deal of motivation, too. Not only does he not want to return to prison, but there is a woman involved, Jeanne, with a ready-made family of two children. She is the best antidote to the death of his own wife, a tragedy that took place while Cam was behind bars. Darcy, fond of comparing women to bottles of wine, had been instrumental in her passing.
Courts of law may not look with favor on violent conflicts that are highly personal, but movie-lovers do. And this is one of them. It has some interesting touches, too. Darcy has a Napoleonic complex. He is also a misogynistic womanizer. Bleeker, on the other hand, is a good-bad guy. He readily blends in with the worst elements, and there are hints (a $5,000 reward for his capture, for starters) that the life he once led was not altogether righteous or peace-loving. But the zeal with which he tries to and succeeds in piecing together a new, more constructive life makes him a hero.
Every once in a while, there are shots of lone horseback riders crossing the plains. These compositions are very picturesque and poetic. A social theme also enters in. Darcy's men sweep into towns, which their leader sees more or less as dots on a map, and shake everything and everybody up. Then the man himself appears at a podium in the town hall to tell the assembled how it is going to be from now on. Citizens are confused but willing to cooperate. Life is hard enough. These scenes indicate that for a brief spell in Kansas, might actually determined right. It is in Abilene that Darcy finally comes up against a force greater than his own. But this time it consists of the Governor, Bleeker, Jeanne, and the Army. That is how Kansas was supposed to have been, a mixture of might and right. There is a final showdown, too. And that is how westerns are supposed to have been, too.