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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 triesto 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.

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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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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