After a brief informal meeting two months earlier when they were impressed with each other, Countess Marie Walewska formally meets Napoleon Bonaparte at a ball in Warsaw. When Napoleon notes her husband is three times her age, and as he is taken with her charms, he unsuccessfully tries to seduce her. She ignores his frequent letters and flowers until a few grim Polish leaders led by Senator Malachowski urge her to give into his desires as a personal sacrifice in order to save Poland. She goes to him despite the humiliation of her husband, who leaves for Rome to annul their marriage. They are extremely happy for a while; Napoleon divorces childless Empress Josephine and Marie eventually becomes pregnant. She is about to tell Napoleon about her baby when he tells her he decided to marry Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. He explains it will be a political marriage to insure his future son could rule securely with Hapsburg blood in him. It will not affect their relationship, he says, ... Written by
Arthur Hausner <email@example.com>
I've often thought that those first twenty minutes of Conquest are the most important of the film. When those Cossacks invade the civilized home of Count Walewska, their actions there establish the reason for all that follows in the film. They are one greasy, slovenly, disreputable lot, set against the urbane Henry Stephenson as the Count and his young wife Maria, played by Greta Garbo.
After what we see of the Cossacks, no wonder the Poles welcome the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte as liberators, restorers of their country which had been carved up about 40 years earlier by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. And when it seems that Greta Garbo is the best thing the Poles have to offer Charles Boyer, it becomes her patriotic duty, even Stephenson unwillingly goes along with the liaison.
But she really loves the Little Corporal as it turns out. They even have a son together. But unfortunately Boyer is about himself first last and always.
Maria Walewska was not the first or last of Napoleon's amours. In fact this film ought to be seen back to back with Desiree, a lost love of Bonaparte's from an earlier time. Both of his marriages were for political reasons, Garbo should have known about the first one going in.
Conquest is one of the few Garbo films where she is not number one, what holds the film together is Charles Boyer as Napoleon. Boyer captures perfectly both the idealism and ambition that was Bonaparte, he got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but lost to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous. Not that Garbo's bad, but I can't recall any other film where her leading man overshadowed her.
Although Conquest takes quite a few liberties with the historical record, it's still a fine costume drama, one of the best that MGM put out back in its height.
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