Monday, April 19, 2010

Unconquered (1947): Colorful DeMille Hokum

Cecil B. DeMille had been making movies for decades by the mid 1940‘s. Silent spectacles, Biblical epics, sweeping historical sagas and more often in the 40’s, films dealing with the history of the United States. In 1945, he began pre-production of a picture about Colonial America based on a novel by Neil H. Swanson, called Unconquered. The master showman pulled out all the stops for this Technicolor bonanza of adventure and romance, but all was not smooth sailing for the 65 year old director.

Abigail “Abby” Hale (Paulette Goddard) is an English indentured servant, sent to the North American colonies in lieu of the hangman‘s noose in Merry Olde England. En route she encounters two men, Captain Chris Holden (Gary Cooper) and Martin Garth (Howard daSilva), Cooper the good guy, daSilva the evil heel. They strike a bidding war for the comely Paulette aboard the ship bound for America. When Chris wins he sets Abby free upon landing. Garth, unflinchingly makes the pretty wench believe that Chris never actually paid his pledged amount for her bond and takes her for himself. Turns out Garth is an illegal arms runner for warring Indians west of the Alleghenies and Chris gets involved again when he seeks out Garth both as a government emissary to stave off an Indian war and to recover Abby.

Never one to spare expense when making a picture, DeMille spent nearly $5 million making Unconquered, and went over budget by nearly $400,000 (this was in 1947!). Made at Paramount, he cast many of his regular actors in the film including leads Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, both of whom the director had used several times before. According to Cooper biographer Jeffrey Meyers, it was the actor’s most lucrative film to date, reaping him 5% of the gross to $6 million, 10% above $6 million, with a minimum guarantee of $300,000. Co-star Goddard made $112,000. The thing about Unconquered is its very hokey, improbable and at times downright campy, but its loads of fun. Boris Karloff is a hoot as Guyasuta, Indian chief of the Senecas, lisp and all. The actor had just had back surgery before he began filming and his brace was camouflaged by the Indian garb he donned.

Although both Cooper and Goddard were still highly attractive, at 46 and 37 respectively, the bloom of youth was gone from both and two time Oscar winning cinematographer, Ray Rennahan, conferred with deMille that he was working hard to mask the circles under Paulette’s eyes as a result of her late nights. One can imagine what the movie might have been if filmed by DeMille ten years earlier with both Cooper and Goddard in their physical prime. They also would have been more in line with the ages of the characters they were playing.

The storyline presents Goddard’s character with one torrid and dangerous adventure after another, including being stripped and beaten in public, stripped and tied to an Indian torture stake and going hurtling over a treacherous waterfall among other things. The actress is also involved in one of deMille’s famous bathtub scenes, this time in a wooden barrel, cleavage and all parts concealed by soap suds non existent in pre-Revolutionary times, but the censors would not be silenced. All this brouhaha caused the film to be known as “The Perils of Paulette” around the Paramount lot where at the time another film under production was the Betty Hutton vehicle The Perils of Pauline.

But the big stink regarding Goddard was her refusal to appear in the big “Siege on Fort Pitt” scene where real firebombs were being hurled about the set. DeMille, who demanded bravery and complete cooperation from his actors, under any circumstances, was livid at the actress, berating her in front of the entire cast and crew, but to no avail. Paulette’s stand-in did the scenes instead, and in an ironic twist, suffered minor burns, to which Goddard felt all the more vindicated. It was the last time the actress was in a Cecil B. DeMille production, being discounted by the director for the role eventually given to Gloria Grahame in his extravaganza, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a film she let DeMille know in no uncertain terms that she greatly wanted to be involved with. Driving home the point of Goddard’s “cowardice” during filming, are comments made by the filmmaker in his 1959 autobiography, where he states that his two heroes of the film were the ultra professional C. Aubrey Smith, who always knew his lines to a tee and a young man, Robert Baughman, who played a drummer boy during the siege on Fort Pitt. When a fireball hit his drum, he continued to play even suffering burns on his hands. The shot can be seen in the final picture.

Other notable performers in the cast of thousands were Ward Bond, Cecil Kellaway, deMille regular Henry Wilcoxon, Virginia Grey, Mike Mazurki and the director’s daughter Katherine deMille (also Mrs. Anthony Quinn).There’s a lot of unintentional humor in Unconquered but a lot of true adventure fun as well. DeMille never disappoints with all the color and excitement and despite their age, Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard do a fine job.


  1. its very hokey, improbable and at times downright campy, but its loads of fun

    Now, which deMille are you describing?

    I have never seen this one - must give it a try. I say "try" because after trying many times, I still don't know how Biggest Show on Earth or The Bible turn out. I presume The Bible follows the book's plotline.

  2. Another good post, Rupert. DeMille was always hit-or-miss with me, but he always struck me as a director whose GOOD side was the one to be on. Goddard would have been interesting in GREATEST SHOW...hmmm...

    Boris Karloff as an Indian there's a scary thought.

  3. This movie is "loads of fun"-DeMille always gave the audience their money's worth-although best remembered for his biblical epics he did some entertaining flicks on the expansion of the country. The depiction of the Native American as a blood curdling savage is unfortunate; but the movie is pure escapism which DeMille delivered in spades.

  4. This is one I'm putting in my next book along with several other DeMilles, as I'm working on a book dealing with epics. Not one of the director's greatest, but still loads of fun.

  5. I saw this movie once. I thought it was crap.



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