The Conquerors (1932)
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Here is a prime example of a very fine film which is virtually forgotten today. Unfairly compared to CIMARRON (1931) - with which it shares some of the same themes and performers - THE CONQUERORS is well able to stand on its own merits, among which first-rate production values and very fine acting are not the least. Certain sequences - the keelboat, the hanging of the outlaws, the opening of the new bank, the arrival of the first train - remain in the memory for a long time.
Covering the years 1873 to 1929, we watch the growth of Fort Allen, Nebraska, as seen through the life of banker Roger Standish, most effectively played by Richard Dix. This underrated actor creates a hero worth emulating, one who courageously strives to improve his society and protect his investors through the quiet dignity of his own character. As his wife, he is well-matched by actress Ann Harding, who provides a tower of strength and graciousness through every adversity.
Much of the story's laughter - and heartache - is provided through the wonderful pairing of Edna May Oliver, as the no-nonsense owner of the local hotel, and Guy Kibbee, as her alcoholic doctor husband. These two inimitable character actors effortlessly steal all of their scenes - as they would continue to do time & time again throughout the rest of the decade.
Movie mavens will recognize Elizabeth Patterson as Dix' sympathetic landlady and Robert Greig as the blasé Englishman at Miss Harding's auction sale, both uncredited.
David O. Selznick was the Executive Producer; the rousing music was composed by Max Steiner. Slavko Vorkapich, the Master of the Montage, provided the transitional effects.
I think the idea behind this movie is that over time, we will face many ups and downs and that we must keep our faith that there is a future and that it will be better than the past. This film contains many cliches about the building of America. There are several scenes of a hugely growing economy followed by a crash then pessimism then more growth. This was obviously aimed at depression-era audiences to give them hope in the future. And, I think, it was also intended to give a brief overview of what it took to build our country.
No question that it tends to be somewhat melodramatic at times. But it is also uplifting and tells an interesting story and keeps a good pace throughout. Well worth seeing.
The film begins with Richard Dix and Ann Harding wanting to get married. However, Harding's father refuses to allow the marriage to Dix--after all, Harding's family is very wealthy and Dix has few prospects. However, when the stock market crashes and Harding's family is ruined, they are able to marry and travel westward. On the way, in Nebraska, Dix is nearly killed by bandits and they end up making their home in a town on the prairie.
The rest of the film consists of the families many ups and downs. Despite many hard knocks, the family's spirit is never crushed and they persevere. In this sense, they are archetypes of the new American spirit and are meant to show the audience that despite many problems, there is light at the end of the tunnel--an obvious metaphor for the Depression. In other words, things may now look bleak in 1932, but like this family we will make it.
The bleakest periods were surprisingly moving and very, very vivid. In fact, because the film was made during the so-called "Pre-Code" era, the intensity of some of the violence was pretty surprising. For example, there is an impromptu mass hanging that is among the most realistic I have ever seen, a train that plows through two people and a suicide! Yet, despite all this, the family manages to carry on and thrive.
The acting was generally very good and the script kept my interest throughout--providing a nice history lesson and homage to the pioneering spirit. Richard Dix was as solid as ever and both Edna May Oliver and Guy Kibbee provide lots of color and laughs in supporting roles. The only negatives were Ann Harding's rather listless performance and the movie using a dumb cliché by having Dix play both the patriarch of the family AND his grandson! This was just silly and only in movies would you see this sort of cliché--much like Patty Duke playing identical cousins! Overall, though, there is very little not to like about this film.
I'm a big fan of Ann Harding and this is one of her best films ("It Happened on 5th Ave" and "Magnificent Yankee" are my favorites). And you can never go wrong with Edna May Oliver and Guy Kibbee, although perhaps they lay it on a little strong in this one.
I've never been a fan of Richard Dix. I thought he was wooden. But in this film he ages 60 years and the elder Dix does a fine job. FWIW he has a few scenes with himself as a young man, and he appears to be mocking his own acting there as the young man. So I gained a new appreciation for him as an actor.
Another reason to watch the film is the director, Wild Bill Wellman, known for films like "Wings" (1927), "Public Enemy" (1931), "A Star is Born" (1937), "The Ox Bow Incident" (1943), "The Story of GI Joe" (1945), and "The High and the Mighty" (1954) among many others.
Seen in the context of 1932, with Herbert Hoover in the White House, the economy still slipping, banks continuing to fail, etc. this is one brave film.
Edna May Oliver is a gem. The acting style is super theatrical; so much so that it's almost post modern, actors commenting on acting on stage. It would be interesting to remake this picture now with a film within a film screenplay, the actors of that period moving in and out of character.
Take a look with your nostalgic eyeballs in your head and you'll enjoy this old RKO picture.
"The conquerors is a fascinating saga:although rather short,it's so compact we have the strange feeling of having watched a hours + work.
remarkable sequences (and ****SpOILERS)
-the death of the young boy and the old doc: avoiding any trick of the tearjerkers ,Wellman shows the mother picking up the toys on the bedroom floor and putting them into the chest ;she and her husband close the chest :that's all but it's enough to make us feel their despair.
-The scene in which the clients ask for their money which predates that of Frank Capra 's 'it's a wonderful life" by more than 10 years; -The birth of the grandson while at the very same moment,the father takes his own life.
-The old banker talking to the portrait of his late wife.
William Wellman ,like his equal Frank Borzague ,shows an infinite sympathy for his characters;it shows in such works as this one,but also in "wild boys of the road" "heroes for sale" or "the ox -bow incident'