Man of Conquest (Blu-ray Review)3 Aug, 2015 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Richard Dix, Gail Patrick, Joan Fontaine, George (Gabby) Hayes.
Some nooks-and-crannies film historian out there may come up with an argument, but this Sam Houston biopic looks like Republic Pictures’ first attempt to craft an ‘A’-picture four years into its existence, even though the studio had sprung for something called Magnacolor when filming 1936’s The Bold Caballero (Zorro apparently demanded no less). Fairly obscure these days despite some showings on Encore’s Westerns Channel (where I first saw it), Conquest is by no means short on entertainment value — on its own, or as a curiosity or as an edifying cross-reference to other screen portrayals of covered events. The normally dyspeptic Victor Jory, for instance, plays a mostly pre-Alamo William B. Travis — quite a contrast to the acting styles of Laurence Harvey (as Travis in John Wayne’s Alamo epic) or Patrick Wilson in director John Lee Hancock’s 2004 honorable flop on that battle. It has been said that Harvey referred to Wayne as “Duke-y” on the set of 1960’s blockbuster, which wouldn’t, on the face of it, be the Jory style.
Cast as Houston here is Richard Dix — who, as noted in a recent column, had the misfortune of having perhaps the most overwrought performance of his career (as Yancey Cravat in the Oscar-winning version of Cimarron) emerge in his best-known film. Most of the time, Dix had a commanding presence, and he carries the earlier and better parts of an increasingly episodic narrative by sheer force of his personality. Like Cimarron, this is the unusual Western epic (though, actually, emphasis is on Tennessee and, of course, Texas) to deal extensively with the marital problems of its protagonist. If memory serves, a lot of Conquest initiates a narrative template later employed in Byron Haskin’s 1956 The First Texan — a CinemaScope/color “shaky-A” with Joel McCrea that also deals in part with Houston’s courtship of wife No. 2. In that one, the woman he can’t quite bring himself to marry (Felicia Farr) spends a lot of her time working in an office, whereas this version has Farr’s counterpart (Gail Patrick) out on the trail a lot. Well, somebody must have been wrong.
A young pre-Rebecca Joan Fontaine (’39 was also the year of Gunga Din) is the unfortunate first wife who can’t abide the glad-handing and even drunken wrestling matches that are part of Houston’s early campaigning (a lot of the movie deals with Tennessee politics). Even this early in her career, Fontaine was apparently getting typed as a big-screen sufferer, and she has a couple emotional scenes, before exiting the story for good, where the gloves really come off. And though Conquest occasionally portrays Houston as something of a blowhard (unusual in this kind of rah-rah bio), it also (accurately) shows him to have been a friend to Native Americans. The scene where Dix/Houston invades a dress ball in full Indian garb borders on the risible — as in that famous late-1950s photo of Frank Sinatra (with then squeeze Juliet Prowse) as an Indian brave with a feather in his cap at a costume party perhaps honoring the Hoboken tribe. On the other hand, the garb can’t rattle the event’s sense of decorum any more than the presence of a Houston sidekick played by George (Gabby) Hayes, who was probably more comfortable saying, “Phila-delphee” — as he does here — than any other actor ever on screen. (Hayes did the definitive “yer darn tootin’” as well.)
Though the Alamo sequence feels kind of rushed, Houston was far away on the sidelines during the massacre or obviously wouldn’t have survived (you’ll recall Richard Boone’s forceful scene at his tent in the Wayne version when the messenger gives him the bad news). One is tempted to think Republic’s coffers ran dry, but expended effort is put into the follow-up San Jacinto sequence, which was, after all, Houston’s shining hour (and against Santa Anna). This scene, too, approximates what I recall from The First Texan, dealing with Houston’s initial disinclination to mount an attack (think: the crazy-like-a-fox department).
Republic went so far as to mount a Houston premiere for this one, which given the disdain that John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and John Ford all had for studio chief Herbert Yates’s stingy ways in all things not Vera Ralston (his wife), suggests that this was a really special project. The movie won’t make the disinclined change their minds and pray that Rick Perry lands a Republican debate spot, but neither is it worthy of obscurity. The Academy even gave it three Oscar nominations: sound recording (often a Republic standout), original score and art direction — the last nod probably motivated by the ball sequence, which looks almost as expensive as some of Roy Rogers’ later shirts.