Unconquered

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UNCONQUERED is unsung today, but it was the biggest grossing film of 1947, as audiences flocked to see producer-director Cecil B. DeMille unleash another broadside of American history, this time set in strife-ridden pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania. Since it had Technicolor, Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, lines formed, popcorn was gorged, critics looked skyward, history professors drank more heavily than usual.

Banished from Britain, indentured servant/vixen Paulette is battled over by frontiersman/ soldier/all-round colonial hero Cooper and despoiler/renegade/basic schmuck Howard Da Silva, while Boris Karloff (yes, that Boris Karloff, barechested, in a wig and moccasins) leads his howling-for-blood warrior horde against Fort Pitt and whoever else is daft enough to build a cabin in the woods.

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A bit toned down (likely thanks to the sobering effect of WW2) from his earlier rampages like Union Pacific, Northwest Mounted Police and Reap The Wild Wind  (a riot during a tornado would be calmer than those epics), this doesn’t have as much enjoyable bad dialogue, but it does tease morals with enslaved Paulette in a bubble bath (before there was such a thing), bare shoulders and all, and threatened with both a whipping and torture by fire. There’s a canoe chase over a waterfall (gasp as you observe how Gary grabs a convenient tree branch mid-plummet—watch and learn, you never know when you’ll have to win over a temptress), bagpipes (always good in a pinch) and a furious attack on a fort, complete with sapling-flung flaming fireballs (I don’t know about you young’uns, but when I fling a flaming lump of..flame..I use saplings, out of respect for tradition).

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Speaking of irony (were we?), Da Silva’s career (mostly as a bad guy) was at its peak: by the end of 1951 he’d be blacklisted for a decade, no doubt to the guffaws of another great character actor, his co-star Ward Bond, one of the most ardent of the industry’s self-appointed Red-baiters.

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They’re backed up during the lengthy (146 minutes) saga by Cecil regulars including Henry Wilcoxon and C.B.s adopted daughter Katherine.  Oscar nominated for Special Effects (scooped by Green Dolphin Street and its earthquake-tidal wave combo), the film showcases DeMille’s visual strong suit, marshaling his extras (4,000 got paid for this fest) around their props, sets, costumes and stunts to create tableaux effects recalling 19th century canvases ala Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, cramming as much into the frame as it could hold, so that even if you cover your ears over the script, your eyes get some treat.

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In the cast: Cecil Kellaway, C. Aubrey Smith, Virginia Grey, Mike Mazurki, Marc Lawrence, Porter Hall, Alan Napier, Lloyd Bridges, Iron Eyes Cody, Lex Barker, Jeff Corey, Jay Silverheels and Ray Teal.  The director narrates (pompous as ever), Goddard doesn’t make any attempt at an English accent. Coop is Coop, at 46 getting a wee tired, but still handsome and commanding.

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The films gross of $11,550,000 roughly translates to $253,000,000 Obamian bucks, the director’s fifth biggest hit of his 80 features.  It was also his second costliest, around $4,372,000, which could buy a lot of Camels back when Harry Truman dealt with another worthless Congress.

The movie was wagged in the industry as ‘The Perils of Paulette’, due to all the arduous physical stuff the My Way Only director put the 37-year old beauty through, and because she famously balked when he insisted she have those actual fiery projectiles hurled at her. Goddard was quite a character (read up and be goggle-eyed at chutzpah)  but she was no dope: the extra who took her place suffered burns.  For DeMille, actors and bit players not foolish ‘brave’ enough to face his dangerous stunt-gags were beneath contempt.  One of the great bullhorn-wielding, jodhpurs-wearing, ego-engulfed Hollywood maniacs of yesteryear.

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Speaking of classics, as a kid, possibly my favorite among my stack of Classics Illustrated was the venerable “The Conspiracy Of Pontiac”, by Francis K. Parkman, the only one of those beloved treasures I still have, ten Presidents later.  I bet I read that darn opus a hundred times. For a good adult look at the fascinating Pontiac and his near-run battle against the tide, I suggest “The Conquerors”, by Allen W. Eckert.  Read. Learn. Be a citizen.

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