The Unconquered

Wow. Having made a specialty of sorts in Twentieth-Century Fox’s postwar films, I’ve gotten use to the promiscuous application of documentary across genres after 1945. But nothing quite prepares for the shock of a Cecil B. DeMille color epic from Paramount that begins with an aerial shot of postwar Pittsburgh and a voice-of-God narrator:
At the forks of the Ohio stands an American city, a colossus of steel, whose mills and furnaces bring forth bone and sinew for a nation.

The film soon discards the documentary, and the present day, and dissolves into a “period” shot of Fort Pitt, backdrop of the French-Indian War (at least that’s what the American textbooks call it).

Actually, The Unconquered is a Western in narrative but a historical film in iconography. Gary Cooper plays another the outsider hero, ruggedly individualist in his morality but committed to the Westward settlement of the English-speaking colonists. Watching so many studio-era films, I sometimes get inured to – accepting of, almost – Hollywood’s marginalization and poor treatment of nonwhite characters, but to me the virulent racism of this film was jaw-dropping. The dialogue shows little, if any, irony in calling native American tribes “savages” (the casting of Boris Karloff as Pontiac chief speaks volumes); the narrative turns on the treachery of allowing the tribes to defend their territory against white settlement. Furthermore, the strangeness of suppliant black slaves in a narrative claiming the unjustness of (white) slavery is glaring.

The thematic use of slavery as a metaphor for women’s relation to marriage and romantic love begs analysis. Paulette Goddard gives a turn as an Englishwoman (with a Long Island accent) wrongly accused and imprisoned to indentured servitude. Her character is a perfect illustration of Mulvey’s formulation of the star as “glamorous impersonating the ordinary” - in this case in turn impersonating the glamorous, when she puts on the designer dress and attends the king’s birthday ball as a London lady.

The Unconquered lacks much of the grand sweep one expects of a de Mille film. To be sure, the Technicolor is crisp (unlike Captain from Castile) and the narrative sweep “epic.” But the early colonial setting prevent the mobilization of architectural mise-en-scene and the grand cinematic gestures of the spectacle historical epic. The de Mille touch comes out best in the execution scene played out as “primitive” sacrifice ritual. The glee the film takes in Goddard’s torture is barely disguised (the historical savages stand in for and allow the contemporary spectator’s sadism), and the scene allows for a richer exploration of color and light than elsewhere in the film.

One other small thing. Wipes don’t look nearly so crisp or effective in Technicolor as they do in black and white.


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