From the moment an opening title tells us that “This is a story of an historic love - the imaginative detail supplied by the dramatist has not violated the spirit of this immortal romance”, we know we’re not in much accuracy in this account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fractious romance with Polish mistress Maria Walewska. I’m not entirely sure if Charles Boyer’s and Greta Garbo’s performances are great theatre or great ham, but one thing is for sure, they’re very entertaining, and furthermore Boyer is undoubtedly the only real equal Garbo ever had to play off in a movie. Unlike the magnetic narcissism the likes of John Barrymore and Robert Taylor stoked in her in Grand Hotel and Camille, Boyer’s aggressive, utterly physical incarnation of Napoleon struts into the film, sinks in his teeth and tugs it, and Garbo with him, around like a hungry wolf, and the couple’s clinches are shot through a volatile chemistry.
As a film, Conquest is fairly standard bed-and-drawing-room history, not as nuanced as the kind Alexander Korda was making in Britain at the time, but compensating with strong production values and technical qualities (particularly Karl Freund’s gorgeous photography), and, of course, meteoric star power. The script’s fairly intelligent portrait of Bonaparte as one part noble idealist, one part childish egotist, lends weight to the proceedings, and the pitch of Walewska as a star-struck young patriot, married to a noble, good-hearted but ancient Count (Henry Stephenson), forced to approach a love-struck Bonaparte to plead for her country’s case with her lips and, it's implied, her hips, has a kind of corny force that probably doesn’t have much to do with the real people but makes for a good yarn. Indeed, considering the themes of infidelity, state-sanctioned immorality and what is definitely an extra-marital sexual affair that results in an illegitimate son, it must have counted as risqué stuff at the time. Apparently, however, losing at
Director Clarence Brown essays the early scenes with atmosphere and drive, with the attention-getting opening in which rampaging Cossacks invade the Walewska’s mansion and threaten Maria’s rape, before the arrival of Bonaparte’s army inspires her to brave the snowy night and encounter him at a snow-crusted shrine. The clash of sensibilities and purposes between the hyper-energetic Bonaparte, grasping hungrily at pleasure in between the business of conquest, and the ardent, ripe-to-be-seduced Maria, played out with spiky energy even in the most glamorous of Warsaw ballrooms, is amusing and well-sustained, with Boyer delighting in portraying Napoleon’s slightly boorish manners and air of imperial prerogative mixing to grating effect. A neat motif sees Bonaparte repeatedly encountering people who don't recognise him, firstly in a comic encounter from Count Walewska's senile mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and much later, and more seriously, from a soldier dying (Vladimir Sokoloff) in the retreat from Moscow, events that underline his journey into self-destructive solipsism. But once Maria forgives Bony for taking dreadful liberties and leaves her husband for the giddy atmosphere of his camp, the film slowly loses force, turning into a series of black-out scenes that skip inelegantly over the statecraft and warfare and leave the supporting characterisations, like Reginald Owen's Tallyrand and Alan Marshall's stand-by love interest, d'Ornano, hovering without resolutions.
The dialogue, supporting the sentimentalised realisation of the historical personages (oh look, Napoleon had a mommy too!), lurches into the kind of breathless, absurd rhetoric (“I have signed many treaties, but this is the first time I have known peace!”) that inspired a couple of generations of movie spoofers. Garbo and Boyer however hold up their end, as in the lengthy, compelling scene when Maria, having learnt Bony’s going to marry Marie-Louise, accuses him of succumbing to his worst impulses and failing his creed, and in the very finale, in which Boyer exits the film with the same unfussy, swift purpose he entered it. He, like Napoleon himself, cared only for the business and had little time for show, and in the context of