Clarence Brown's production of Conquest (1937) has all the trappings of a star-studded spectacle. Yet, despite some visually resplendent sets supplied by Cedric Gibbons and William Horning, mesmerizingly captured in arresting black and white cinematography by Carl Freund, the film lacks that inimitable creative spark to set the screen ablaze. For the only time in her career, Greta Garbo (top billed) plays second fiddle to her male co-star, Charles Boyer - the two giving performances of depth and quality that quite often captivate and engage the audience.
This is a film of immense production value as only MGM in its heyday was capable of supplying. The sets are enormous and bafflingly beautiful. Regrettably, the action set before them leaves something to be desired. If only the screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein, Talbot Jennings, Helen Jerome and Salka Viertel was not such a claptrap of vignettes loosely strung together, the film itself might have been genuinely compelling entertainment.
Based on Waclaw Gasiorowski's sprawling novel, Conquest is the story of the Polish Countess Marie Walewska (Garbo). Or is it the story of Napoleon Bonaparte (Charles Boyer)? The narrative never seems to decide, although Boyer's is clearly the more compelling. We first meet Marie on the eve that the estate she shares with her elderly husband, Count Anastas (Henry Stephenson) is all but destroyed by galloping Russian invaders; herein represented as Cossack barbarians. Intent on pillaging the property - and possibly raping its women - their all out terrorization is thwarted by the arrival of the Royal Guard fronted by the Count's adult son from a previous marriage, Paul Lachinski (Leif Erickson).
Paul informs Marie and his father that Napoleon (Boyer) is stationed at a nearby camp as part of a goodwill tour through Poland. Marie, who has heard great things about the man, is determined that she should catch a glimpse of Napoleon after the others have gone to bed. Hiding behind a row of tall pines in the bitter cold, Marie does indeed see Napoleon as he walks the concourse of the military embankment. But she is discovered and forced to identify herself.
Napoleon is captivated by her beauty and moved by Marie's declaration of love for her country. After their brief audience, Marie returns home to find her husband concerned over Poland's future. She learns that while Napoleon is sympathetic to Poland's plight he has been noncommittal in offering any sort of military backing to help crush the Russian threat.
Several days later, the Count and Marie are invited to a grand ball at the Royal Palace in Warsaw by Senator Malachowski (George Zucco). There, Marie is formally introduced to Napoleon who keeps their first meeting a secret but mistakes the Count as Marie's father. Upon learning that Anastas is Marie's husband, Napoleon continues to pursue her romantically, writing letters that profess his undying love.
Although Marie never replies to these brazen overtures, Malachowski wisely assesses that if Poland is to secure Napoleon's defences against the Russians it will require the sacrifice of a good woman to help champion their cause. Anastas is understandably insulted by the suggestion, but Marie accepts her fate almost willingly. She and Anastas divorce and shortly thereafter Napoleon and Marie become lovers.
For the briefest of interludes they are supremely contented in their fiery passion for one another. However, when it is suggested that Napoleon marry Marie Louise, the Archduchess of Austria (Jean Fenwick) for political gain, Marie withdraws from Napoleon's side - never confessing to him that she is pregnant with his child.
From here, the film becomes severely episodic. Marie Louise marries Napoleon and bears him a son. The marriage is not a happy one. We witness Napoleon's first crushing defeat against the Russians done in almost montage with the briefest of scenes played out rather unconvincingly in rapid succession. But then comes the film's final act - teeming with emotional breadth and a palpable air of doomed tragedy, so overwhelming that it stifles the episodic grandeur gone before.
Dethroned, humiliated and exiled by the French to the island of Elba, Napoleon plots his vengeance with his loyal mother, Laetitia (Dame May Whitty) at his side. Daily, he longs for his estranged wife to come and visit him with their son but to no avail. Instead, Marie makes her journey to Elba with Alexandre (Scotty Beckett) and later, confesses to Napoleon that Alexandre is his son. Marie begs that Napoleon not venture a return to his native France but he will have none of it. Regrettably, upon learning that no one knows of Marie's arrival to Elba, Napoleon's thirst for conquest hatches a plot that results in Marie becoming complicit in delivering a declaration of war to the mainland.
The film ignores the fact that Napoleon was successful in regaining control over his armies for a period of one hundred days before his crushing defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, the film suggests that Napoleon's journey back to France was met with immediate resistance. The final scene is a bittersweet farewell. Napoleon places Alexandre in charge of looking after his mother. As Marie clutches Alexandre in her arms, a row boat carrying Napoleon to a British tall ship departs off the Port of Rochefort.
In reality, Napoleon was placed under house arrest by the British on the island of Saint Helena, relocated several times, until finally to Longwood House - a considerable estate - where he wrote his memoirs in relative obscurity. Upon his death in May 1821, Napoleon's remains were buried in an unmarked grave in the Valley of the Willows on Saint Helena until 1840 when France's King Louise Phillippe obtained permission from the British to relocate Napoleon's remains to his beloved Paris in a crypt that was not finished until 1861.
Conquest is convoluted entertainment, yet strangely compelling to watch. There is genuine chemistry between Boyer and Garbo and moments of eloquent romantic exchange between the two that seems heartfelt and sincere. Usually one for over dramatization, Garbo's performance seems quite naturalistic herein. Boyer is a superb Napoleon, in both deportment and performance. MGM's glittering art direction salvages the narrative to a point. There's always something incredibly beautiful to look at. But the narrative lacks in so many ways that it is hard to appreciate the enterprise as a whole. Conquest is therefore a film for die hard Garbo lovers only and that's a shame because there are extraordinary moments peppered throughout - just not enough to make this a worthy excursion.
This title is a burn-on-demand offering from The Warner Archive. The film's 70 plus age is working against it. Although the gray scale retains impressive contrast levels and a remarkable amount of fine detail, age related artefacts are prevalent throughout - sometimes severely so and distracting. Edge enhancement is minimal but also present in several scenes. The image is therefore not as smooth as it should be.
Also, the audio is hanging on by a thread - very strident and crackling at times. Music cues seem to have been artificially boosted while dialogue occasionally sounds quite muffled. As with other titles in the WB Archive, a theatrical trailer is the only extra feature. Warner Home Video - a company that used to lead by example where classic film output is concerned - needs to start doing right by their classic films starting with this one! On the whole, this presentation is a disappointment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)