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Norman Z. McLeod
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The dynamic and colorful life of Sam Houston is one of those epics stories that truly deserve a mini-series. Hopefully one day, one will be done for him. My guess is that his background as a slave owner works against having Houston honored in that way. One of the most glaring omissions of Man Of Conquest is the lack of black people and the issue of slavery which is one of the darker parts of the Texas story.
The film resembles D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln biographical film in format. A quick passage through Houston's youth and military service with Andrew Jackson and he's governor of Tennessee. Then the story continues until the Battle Of San Jacinto with a brief epilogue. Another error mentions Houston was at the Battle Of New Orleans, he was not. He did however do some considerable Indian fighting, but also developed a great respect for the native people. In fact he moved in with his adoptive tribe, the Cherokees after the scandal of his divorce wrecked his political career in Tennessee.
Richard Dix makes a solid and heroic Houston and his wives are played by Joan Fontaine as Eliza Allen and Gail Patrick as Margaret Lea. And Houston did not even meet Margaret Lea until after Texas was a republic on a visit to the United States.
Mexico by not populating its territory north of the Rio Grande left it pretty much open to whomever would settle and for awhile it was only Comanches, Arankawas, and Kiowa tribes. The bulk of settlers from the USA came from the south and some brought slavery and their slaves with them. Eventually East Texas became a cotton growing region like the rest of the cotton culture south. This is the part we don't talk about in this film.
The rest of the characters of Texas history are there, popularized by Walt Disney and John Wayne later on. Robert Armstrong, Robert Barrat, Victory Jory, Ralph Morgan, play Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Stephen F. Austin respectively. Edward Ellis plays a thinner and more subdued Andrew Jackson than you saw Lionel Barrymore do in The Gorgeous Hussy. Did you know Andrew Jackson took a secret trip to Texas while in the White House? I didn't either until I saw this film.
Two of Republic Pictures cowboy sidekicks got roles in this film. Max Terhune, minus his ventriloquist dummy, plays famed scout Deaf Smith and Gabby Hayes has an all purpose fictional sidekick role.
The Battle of San Jacinto isn't even played right. In fact it wasn't much of a battle because of the complete surprise that Houston got on General Santa Anna at dawn. The whole thing was over in about 20 minutes and more Texans lost their lives on the screen in Man Of Conquest than at the real battle.
This was Republic Pictures big budget item for 1939 and got Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Musical Scoring. Herbert J. Yates really laid a lot of loot out from Republic for this film. The budget of about 10 Gene Autry and 10 Roy Rogers films went into Man Of Conquest.
The best treatment of the Sam Houston story is in TV film Gone To Texas which starred Sam Elliot as Houston. Man Of Conquest has not worn well over the years and its glaring historical inaccuracies will make any true Texan wince.
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