The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) Poster

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A major disappointment because of missing footage and a peculiar modern percussion score.
Art-2211 March 1999
I watched this on Turner Classic Movies, which helped finance the restoration of the film from the only surviving print, located in Belgium. It was introduced by Ruby Dee, who mentioned it was advertised to negroes with statements like "come see the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan," which was pretty bold in 1920. It sounded good to me, but the film warns you that missing footage will be summarized by title cards. And wouldn't you know it, the supposed annihilation was part of the missing footage! What a letdown! And the ultra modern percussion music score by Max Roach, consisting of drums, a symbol and sticks just seemed out of place for this film, and I found it very obtrusive. Even though the filming techniques were primitive, it had some interesting elements, touching on a light-skinned negro who hates the negro race, and a white woman who helps the negroes. Micheaux never made the bad guys all white or the good guys all black, like some exploitation films in the 60's and 70's. The narrative was sometimes confusing, but that may have been because of the title translation or some missing footage. Still, I was disappointed, especially after I enjoyed Micheaux's film "Within Our Gates" so much.
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Intriguing premise, uneven narrative
CJBx713 February 2014
THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED (1920) is one of the earliest surviving silent films to prominently feature a black cast, and is directed by Oscar Micheaux. It tells the story of Eve Mason (Iris Hall), a woman from the south who inherits property from her grandfather and journeys to settle there. Along the way, after being forced to stay in a barn by a light-skinned black, Jefferson Driscoll (Lawrence Chenault) who hates his race and tries to pass for white, she encounters Hugh Van Allen (Walter Thompson), a neighbor who owns property which turns out to be very valuable. When Driscoll and his white friends learn of the value of Van Allen's property, they plot against him in order to force him to sell - or suffer the consequences...

SCRIPT: As with Micheaux's previous feature WITHIN OUR GATES, the narrative rambles and is crowded with too many characters to make a definite impression. The central themes deal with a black woman trying to find a place for herself in a hostile world, and a biracial man who harbors resentment against his own race for supposedly hampering his progress in society. (A flashback shows why – Driscoll's mother unwittingly interferes with his attempts to court a white girl, and he reacts by throwing his mother to the ground.) Interesting themes, but unfortunately the narrative sags fatally in the middle with rather uninteresting plotting by the villains, and by the time the climax comes along, it's too late to really perk things up. There's also really very little character definition – nobody seems like anything more than a character type here. SCORE: 5.5/10

ACTING: The acting is adequate here for the most part, but since there are so many characters to keep track of, I can't say that I felt any of the performances really stood out. There is some melodramatic behavior and mugging early on, and some of the scenes are unintentionally funny as a result. Iris Hall is charming as the heroine, but she doesn't really get enough screen time to do much with her role. Chenault is a bit broad but mostly effective as the villainous Driscoll. SCORE: 6/10

CINEMATOGRAPHY/PRODUCTION: The camera-work is fairly competent here, with some interesting and evocative shots of the night sky, as well as a few menacing shots of the KKK ride at night. The editing is a little clumsy at times. There could be a bit more variety in long, medium, and close- up shots, though. It would help to maintain interest. SCORE: 6/10

SUMMARY: THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED does have an intriguing premise, and one has to commend Micheaux for being willing to bring such uncompromising material to the screen. The narrative is uneven and the acting is adequate, but there's not much chance for anyone to make an impression. Still, the movie does have historical importance as an early example of films that address the issues of black life in the early 20th century. SCORE: 6/10
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"What Can They Do"!!
kidboots28 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Oscar Micheaux tackled a huge variety of subjects and topics in his films, all of special interest to his race. Mob violence, rape, economic exploitation, even inter-racial relationships are explored but as in many race films of the 20s and early 30s skin colour was important - light skinned Afro Americans represented the educated and elite while the poor and criminal classes were usually depicted as darker skinned. This movie was a bit different, yes Eve Mason, the heroine, is a light skinned African American who leaves her home in Selma, Alabama after inheriting some land from her grandfather. She then encounters Jefferson Driscoll a bitter and twisted mulatto with a deep hatred for black people - ever since his mother surprised him with a visit when he was romancing a white girl!! He takes Eve for a white girl but "her skin may be white but her eyes betray her origins"!! - once he realises his mistake he orders her to the barn and laughs maniacally when he sees her stumbling about in the mud.

She makes her way to the woods where her grand father's cabin and land is waiting for her. With the help of prospector and neighbour Hugh Van Allen, he is also able to help her chase off some intruders. Driscoll has sold his boarding house and is now a horse trader and Allen finds out how disreputable when the horses he bought in good faith prove to be broken down nags. He confronts Driscoll at the local saloon and after a realistic fight Driscoll is bested and vows revenge. He gets his chance when a dropped letter that falls into his hands shows that Van Allen's land is extremely valuable. He then enlists the head of the Ku Klux Klan to scare him off it!! The images of the Klan riding through the woods at midnight are scary - it looks so real. Quite a chunk of the rest of the movie is missing. I'm wondering whether it was deliberately censored by some Southern cinema owners as it showed the Klan's raid failing due to a "coloured man with a brick"!! That wouldn't have gone down too well in some of those towns.

The film resumes with Van Allen, a couple of years later, now an oil king, running his own company and visited by Eve now working for the Committee for the Defense of the Coloured Race. He was completely unaware of Eve's African American parentage and can now proclaim the love he had kept hidden.

Another powerful film from Oscar Micheaux but surely there must have been better music available than that 60 minute drum solo!!
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Oscar Micheaux's The Symbol of the Unconquered is an interesting curio of early black cinema
tavm1 February 2008
In preparation of reviewing a month of African-American films for Black History Month in chronological order (whenever possible), I looked up Google Video for the earliest available movie from the Negro pioneer, Oscar Micheaux. The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan was what I found on YouTube. It wasn't under that heading but that of the William Hooker Quartet whose members are Hooker on drums, Okkyung Lee on cello, Ras Moshe on saxophone and flute, and Sabir Matteen on sax also. The drums dominated the underscore to the first 20 minutes before all the other instruments came into play. I thought that score was pretty compelling for the story presented on the screen with the band being visually dissolved during the inter-titles. The plot itself, about a racist group-one of whom is a mulatto who hates blacks with a passion-that tries to scare a black owner, named Van Allen, of a valuable property off was something that had to be addressed after D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Too bad that scene of the Klan being defeated by another black man throwing bricks at them is currently lost as that would have made it a very exciting picture indeed. As it is, there's still the mulatto woman, Eve, whose happy ending with Van Allen is all but assured after things are cleared up that provides some fascination with the way Micheaux seems to like to present a light-skinned woman as more worthy of the hero than one with more darker skin or maybe I'm reading too much into the plot line. Worth a look once for anyone curious about the earliest days of the cinema.
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Early D.I.Y. (do it yourself)
Seamus282928 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I just had the rare chance of seeing this nearly forgotten piece of African American film making from the early 20th century the other night at Real Art Ways, in Hartford, Ct., with a live music score by the master percussionist, William Hooker. The film itself is a true exponent of "do it yourself" film making, as was the rest of Oscar Micheaux's output. He wrote & directed this slight epic, dealing with the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (known here as "the knights of the black cross"). It also features a cast of (mostly)African American actors/actresses, who were depicted as fully fleshed out characters (and not the buffoons that were stereotyped by Hollywood in early cinema to be laughed at). 'Symbol' seems to be a cinematic middle finger stuck in the face of D.W. Griffith for his highly racist "epic" 'The Birth Of A Nation",which also told the story of the K.K.K. from a white perspective. The film,being the only surviving one of Micheaux's films, was taken from the only surviving print from Belgium,unfortunately has missing footage (due to either nitrate damage,or is just lost to time), so that the film time runs in at just under an hour. It's a film that is worth taking a look at for nothing else but historical purposes (i.e. don't come expecting to see the greatest silent film ever made).
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Clash of Symbols
richardchatten30 March 2017
'The Symbol of the Unconquered', like most silent westerns, is an easygoing outdoor yarn making good use of attractive sylvan locations; but with the unorthodox racial element one expects from a film by Oscar Micheaux. The villainy is surprisingly not exclusively white in origin, the meanest of the bad guys being a mulatto called Driscoll whose hatred of blacks derives from his own failure to pass for white - in a flashback anticipating 'Imitation of Life' - when his black mother inconveniently shows up while he's courting a nice local white girl. The veteran black actor Leigh Whipper (best known for the role of Crooks in both the original Broadway production and film version of 'Of Mice and Men') makes his film debut rather bizarrely playing the role of a villainous Indian fakir.

After much scheming the bad guys finally make their move on the estate of hero Hugh Van Allen's oil-rich settlement with the help of the local Ku Klux Klan, who saddle up in an impressively shot night sequence, while heroine Eve Mason changes out of her frock into an equally impressive Annie Oakley buckskin cowgirl outfit to ride off herself for help.

Unfortunately, it's at this point that a substantial chunk of the film is tantalisingly missing. But the help duly arrives, since the Klan get their asses kicked and are sent packing by a fusillade of bricks thrown by a brother. When the dust settles, Hugh is now an oil millionaire with a big office, his arm round the comely Eve. The End.
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Good Early Race Film
Michael_Elliott28 February 2008
Symbol of the Unconquered, The (1920)

** 1/2 (out of 4)

Strange film from the black independent director Oscar Micheaux. A light skinned black woman travels North to get her inheritance that her grandfather left her. In this new town she meets another black man who hates his race and pretends to be wife, an evil Indian and eventually the KKK. The director apparently started making these "black films" in response to how blacks were being shown at the time so on a historical level this film is pretty interesting but as a film it really never takes off. The stereotypes are pretty out there and laughable and the film is way too over-dramatic in every single scene. The film was originally promoted to black people claiming that the KKK would be massacred in the film. That happens but sadly this scene is lost so we're not able to view it today. I guess you could call this one of the first "blaxploitation" films, although the director never makes all the whites bad and all the blacks good. It's rather interesting seeing his hatred towards certain members of his own race. Another down note is the horrible music score added to the film. Again, for film history sake this is a must see but on its own there's really nothing too special here. I also recorded the director's Within the Gates and Body and Soul, which are apparently better.
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An important historical curio, but not an especially fun film to watch
MartinHafer3 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This film is about race hatred. Now in this unique film, it's not just Whites hating Blacks but most of the hatred is from light-skinned Blacks who are passing as White and their hatred for other Black people. This is a rather daring topic, as was having one of these race phonies calling out the KKK on his own people due to his self-hatred!! THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED sounded like an exciting movie to watch. After all, it was a Black-produced and acted silent film that dealt with the Ku Klux Klan--how could this turn out to be anything other than exciting?! Well, unfortunately, it did--and not all of this is the fault of writer/director/producer Oscar Micheaux nor his cast. The biggest problem is that even if this was a good film (which it wasn't), major portions of the movie are missing--having decomposed over time like so many older films made on nitrate stock. And, unfortunately, the most exciting portion, the confrontation with the Klan, is among the portions missing. Because of this, the restored version describes the missing scenes and you are left to imagine what it was like--making giving this film a numerical score practically impossible. My score is based on two thing--how enjoyable the viewing experience was (it wasn't) and the uniqueness of the plot (it was).

The bottom line is that in the portions that are remaining, the acting is rather amateurish and the plot is a bit hard to believe and surprisingly dull. However, it is an interesting historical curio, so some may find it a good film to see--especially if you want to see what Black-American films were like in the olden days--though several of Micheaux's other surviving films are better made and more entertaining.
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