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DVD Discovery: Man of Conquest

DVD Discovery: Man of Conquest

I’m a sucker for any vintage movie I know little about.
That’s why I perked up when I noticed that Olive Films is releasing Republic
Pictures’ 1939 movie Man of Conquest on
DVD and Blu-ray today.

Richard Dix stars as Sam Houston in this ambitious
production from the quintessential B-movie factory, which was on in its fourth
year of existence. It was Republic’s most expensive production to date and even
warranted sending its stars to Houston, Texas for a gala premiere. But the
production was fraught with problems. The script was in development for several
years and filming went over-budget, almost unheard-of for this most efficient
of movie studios. The finished film doesn’t quite work, but I still find it
intriguing for a number of reasons.

I’ve always liked Richard Dix, and he gives a vivid
performance as Houston, whose larger-than-life story could fill more than one
movie. That’s one of the problems with the picture: it tries to cover too much
ground, from Houston’s adoption by the Cherokee nation to his unorthodox
approach to politics (as governor of Tennessee), a failed first marriage, and
his unswerving devotion to his mentor, Andrew Jackson. That all occurs before
the restless adventurer set his sights on Texas, where he generates even more
history, including his famous defeat of Mexican General Santa Anna in the wake
of the siege at the Alamo.

Much of the film is accurate, but Republic’s reach
definitely exceeded its grasp. With four writers credited for story and screenplay
it’s clear that no one could get a handle on this sprawling material. Former
editor George Nicholls Jr. directed, but the major battles were staged by famed
action specialist B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason. They’re good but pale in comparison
to his unforgettable work in, say, The
Charge of the Light Brigade
.

Yet there is still a
lot to enjoy: Dix is compelling as the roughneck-individualist and
delivers a surfeit of speeches with conviction. The art direction and
production design are first-rate, including Howard and Theodore Lydecker’s
scale-model of the Alamo. And when we first see leading lady Gail Patrick,
she’s wearing a heart-stopping white taffeta ball gown specially designed for the
film by Edith Head.

The cast is large and impressive, though not always used to
best advantage. Joan Fontaine, just one year from stardom in Rebecca, has a thankless role as the
young woman who marries Houston—for reasons unexplained—and then immediately
rejects him. Ellis, best remembered as the title character in The Thin Man, gets a lot of screen time
as Houston’s surrogate father “Andy” Jackson. The always-welcome George Hayes
(not yet officially billed as Gabby) is fun to watch as Houston’s loyal pal,
although this makes the film resemble a formulaic B Western at times.

Among the historical figures Robert Barrat is Davy Crockett,
Ralph Morgan is Stephen Austin, Robert Armstrong is Jim Bowie, and Victor Jory
is William Travis—but some of these roles are sketchily drawn. If you’re a fan
of character players you’ll be dizzy trying to keep track of everyone who turns
up. Is that a young George Montgomery in an early shot alongside Ellis? Did Russell
Hicks just utter one line? Why does Leon Ames disappear after a single scene
with Dix? Western buffs will spot even more familiar faces in fleeting moments.

I asked Frank Thompson, author of Alamo Movies and many other authoritative books, about the film and
he said, “The film is reasonably accurate to the broad outlines of Houston’s
story. He did live as an Indian and his first marriage was dissolved under
circumstances that were never explained. The Crockett stuff is nonsense, of
course, and the Alamo sequence is highly inaccurate, but I love it anyway. I
enjoy the film a lot. Dix is not much like the real Houston but I like the
authority he brings to it.”

I also consulted Boyd Magers, the editor-publisher of Western Clippings, who gives the film a
scathing review in Vol. 3 of his B-Western
Movie Reviews
book (available HERE ):
“The entire mess reduces history to quick, episodic, clichéd, comic book
coincidence and presents Houston as a self-serving, egotistical
opportunist—(maybe he was). A complete waste!”

My feelings aren’t nearly as harsh: it’s the kind of movie I
find interesting because of what it tries
to accomplish, even though it doesn’t always succeed. The 84-year-old son of
Sam Houston wasn’t pleased with the picture and filed a million dollar lawsuit
for “injuring the memories” of his family. Republic was also sued by author
Marquis James, who claimed that the film plagiarized his Pulitzer Prize-winning
biography of Houston, The Raven. Such
problems don’t seem to have dogged the 1917 silent biography of Houston called The Conqueror, directed by Raoul Walsh
and starring William Farnum.

And I do like Richard Dix. He trouped into the talkie era in
grand style by earning an Oscar nomination as the star of RKO’s mammoth Western
epic Cimarron (1931). But Dix’s overstated performance as
pioneer/empire builder Yancey Cravat doesn’t hold up well and even in its day
proved to be a tough act to follow. The ruggedly handsome leading man found few
vehicles that showed him off as well as his mostly-lighthearted silent films
had done. (One of his more serious roles actually presaged the character of Sam
Houston: he plays an educated Navajo in 1929’s pro-social drama Redskin.)

The film was definitely a milestone for the still-young
Republic Pictures: it earned three Academy Award nominations, for Art Direction
(John Victor Mackay), Music Score (Victor Young), and Sound Recording (Charles
S. Lootens). Whether or not tight-fisted studio chief Herbert J. Yates felt his
investment was worthwhile is hard to say.

But I’m glad I got to see it. Man of Conquest is an imperfect film, to be sure, but it doesn’t
deserve to be forgotten. I’m glad Olive Films has made it
available in a nice, clean transfer and hope that curious film lovers give it a
try.

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