Unconquered (1947)

Continuing my recent pseudo-survey of Cecil B. DeMille’s films, Unconquered brings me to his first post-WW2 film, and his last American history subject before his final retreat into Biblical matters with Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956). Unconquered seems to be one of his most neglected later projects, and like all his films it demands a certain level of forgiveness to enjoy the qualities. If you can get past Paulette Goddard’s complete lack of an appropriate accent in playing a working-class English girl condemned to indentured servitude, and DeMille’s familiar dollops of corn and chauvinism, it’s actually one of his most sober and driving works, built around the events of Pontiac’s War in the mid-1760s. Unconquered sees Goddard’s Abigail ‘Abby’ Hale transported to meet her fate because of her incidental involvement with her brother’s killing of two press-gang men, and landing in the middle of racial and political strife. Before she even sets foot on shore, her beauty makes her the object of a contest between two men, Garth (Howard da Silva), a trading plutocrat, and Captain Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper), the younger son of a moneyed family who’s drawn to frontier adventuring, given an extra push when his fiancé proves to have married his brother during his absence.

When Garth tries to buy Abby’s servitude, Holden outbids him purely to spite him. Holden, a serving member of the colonial militia, detests Garth, whose efforts to secure his grip over the wilderness Ohio territory are approaching the megalomaniacal. That Garth’s oiliness is even worse than Holden suspects is soon made clear when, after Holden has given Abby her freedom, Garth convinces the ship’s captain to burn the bill of sale, and he drags Abby off under the impression she’s had a bad joke played on her. DeMille’s favourite story device, a romantic triangle with a misunderstanding at the heart, is then interwoven with the politicking that threatens to engulf the frontier. Garth, married to Hannah (Katherine DeMille), the daughter of Seneca chief Gayasuta (Boris Karloff…that’s right, Boris Karloff), and, having made sure the Indian nations are very well armed, is organising them into an army friendly to his interests, to keep the British forces out east of the Ohio River. Holden, after consulting with Colonel George Washington (Richard Gaines) and other interested parties, is dispatched to try and negotiate with the Indian chiefs, but soon finds a solid wall of marauding braves makes his mission impossible. Instead, he makes his way to Fort Pitt, where, as fortune has it, Garth has brought Abby and his wife to direct his evil plan, and Holden rescues Abby, but only for the purpose of pushing Garth into a duel, so that Holden can kill him and forestall the coming war. Garth outmanoeuvres Holden, and he has Abby spirited away by Gayasuta’s men, who then propose to sacrifice her at Hannah's behest, but Holden, abandoning his post, follows her into the forest and extracts her from the Seneca camp with guile.

All of the elements are classic, familiar DeMille: what’s slightly different is the snappier, darker sensibility that’s not too out of place in the immediate post-war era, and a quick comparison to DeMille’s last collaboration with Goddard, Reap the Wild Wind, bears this out. Slaughter and torture lurk just around the edge of many a frame, and there’s much less emphasis on comedy and none on religion. The carefully paced story by Charles Bennett, Frederick M. Frank and Jesse Lasky Jr builds to a chase drama not very far from Bennett’s variation on The 39 Steps, with Holden and Abby as feuding, reluctant lovers trying to avoid both the pursuing Senecas and their own countrymen who are determined to return Abby to Garth’s possession and to prosecute Holden for his alleged misdeeds.

Pontiac’s War was, with its many mutual atrocities, seen by many as the occasion in which a true polarisation between European and Native American societies became a tragic fact, but DeMille has nothing to say about that in a literal sense, nor Jeffrey Amherst’s role in stirring up the war with high-handed policies, or the later, grim dawn of biological warfare in attempts by those besieged in Fort Pitt to exterminate their enemies with smallpox-infected blankets. Instead, the usual device in films from the era, that tries to encapsulate complex historical frictions, in portraying conflicts sparked by profiteers duping gullible but enthusiastic natives, is in play. It’s worth noting too that the abolitionist theme at no time is seen to extend to any black slaves. More surprisingly, DeMille avoids all rhetoric that anticipates the future Revolution, preferring to leave that encoded in the essential drama, affirming Abby and Holden as examples of the “unconquered” breed of pioneers who will accept no repression or retreat from the New World.

A lengthy sequence that serves as a breather from the last third’s fight-and-flight action sees Abby and Holden shack up together in a frontier farm they assume to have been abandoned by the owners, builds to a disquieting punchline when Holden finds that the owners never left, their slaughtered corpses lying in a pile just beyond the boundary fence, inspiring Abby to momentary defeatism, but Holden asserts that such horrors will never defeat the new breed. A clash of societies that both have the potential for inhuman cruelty propels the drama: Abby’s threatened gruesome fate with the Senecas has already been mirrored by scene in which, to punish her for intransigence, Garth’s hired heavy Bone (Mike Mazurki) ties her up to deliver a back-flaying whipping, also narrowly averted. But the heroism of the British military is never in doubt. The usual dubious historical pageantry is manifest when DeMille contrives to have Washington, who’s portrayed with a refreshing affect of professional good-humour, Richard Henry Lee (Frank Wilcox), and Mason and Dixon (George Kirby and Leonard Carey) all present with Holden and Garth in one room.

Although DeMille’s way of handling a social context was never as nuanced as John Ford’s, nonetheless like him he delighted in watching a sprawling cast of characters come together and interact, creating a mesh of figures that come to resemble a society. From Captain Ecuyer (Victor Varconi), the Swiss commander at Fort Pitt who becomes a friendly foil for Holden, through to a broad gallery of supporting characters like Ward Bond’s John Fraser, a garrulous blacksmith, Cecil Kellaway’s Jeremy Love, a trickster and pickpocket, and a dozen other one- and two-line character parts who decorate the corners of DeMille’s painterly frames, DeMille gives substance to his recurring theme of the conciliation of new, soon-to-be-dominant ways of life, and individual rectitude is always probed and contrasted with its effect on the group's interests. Interestingly, DeMille’s fondness for femme fatales who accidentally cause destruction through wilfulness is transplanted: Abby, entrapped pawn between Garth and Holden, Old World and New, is his ideal heroine, neither passive nor anarchic, and Hannah, rather, is the agent of that theme.

Garth, terrifically characterised by da Silva with over-confidence and imperial self-regard only violated by his willingness to expose himself in his need to possess Abby in more than a merely servile fashion, is an excellent villain, all the more so for being one with an unexpected human edge. His grand machinations begin to falter thanks to his libidinous hunger being inseparable from his other greed. His duplicity finally drives his Indian wife to betray him by foiling his pot to assassinate Holden after springing him from Fort Pitt’s prison, making herself the target for Garth’s killers, and displaying her oozing bullet wounds to him as she lies dying in his room. Katherine, who always played the haughty, severe Other Women in her adoptive father’s films, is as fascinatingly fixated here as in her other roles for him.

Cooper is as solid as ever, and whilst not at his most inspired – his near-unrivalled capacity to radiate moral and emotional anxiety is rarely called upon - DeMille’s reliance on him to provide a convincing hero is justified as ever in his lean, heroic cool, handling guns and knives with brilliantly supple and intuitive flourishes, his businesslike, even murderous taciturnity contrasting the emotive pools that are his eyes. As gruesomely racist as it is, it’s hard not to admire the way DeMille conjures intense physical threat, conveyed when Gayasuta’s men threaten Abby with heated spear-tips, rubbing them on the wood of her torture-frame, burning great black gouges. The film’s compelling, rocket-paced final third kicks off when Holden extracts Abby from Gayasuta’s camp by fooling the chieftain and his witch doctor Sioto (Marc Lawrence – two more oddball Indians than Boris Karloff and Marc Lawrence, and both together at the same time, is the kind beautiful idiocy I can’t resist) into thinking his compass is an device of death, talking Gayasuta into loading himself with weapons so that the needle will point to him and thus holding him in fearful stasis long enough for Holden and Abby to slip away, until the penny drops.

Abby and Holden’s recourse to hiding under a waterfall suggests this film may have had direct influence on Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992). DeMille really cuts lose however in an (unfortunately short) vignette of the siege of Fort Pitt, full of thundering guns, bursting grenades, interesting tactics (the Senecas using their canoes as siege ladders and catapulting firebombs into the fort) and he crams his frames with illustrative detail that would certainly have made any classic genre painter proud, from the fort’s women throwing themselves fearlessly into action to Fraser and Love’s less than ideal partnership in hurling grenades. The genuinely tense climactic moments leads to an utterly unhistorical but amusing device in which Holden manages to drive away the besiegers with a column of wagons populated entirely by dead British soldiers and a team of Highland bagpipers, inspiring the Fort’s acting commander (Henry Wilcoxon) to state, “That’s the first time I’ve enjoyed the sound of a bagpipe!” The bombast and bold-type declamation of DeMille’s style is still a flavour that’s heavy on the modern palate, but if The Ten Commandments represents DeMille at his most deliriously, deliberately stylised, Unconquered is the grittiest of his later works to my eye.

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