Review: Cliches and Stereotypes Abound in Cecil B. DeMille's Soapy 'Unconquered'

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 20, 2021

Much cultural and filmic contextualization is necessary to accept and appreciate Cecil B. DeMille's grand adventure tale "Unconquered," which is set during the violent time of Pontiac's rebellion in the mid-18th century. Said to be the celebrated filmmaker's most expensive picture up to that time (1947), with a cost of $5 million, the epic master certainly spared no expense when it came to filming a particularly exciting rapids sequence that is worth the sit alone.

In addition, we get commanding Gary Cooper as good guy Captain Christopher Holden, out to expose the evil trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva), who is in cahoots with the Native Americans. Enter Paulette Goddard as Abby Hall, recently tried and convicted of murder in London, and sentenced to death — but allowed the option to live as an indentured servant for 14 years in the new British colonies of North America. Guess which she chooses.

A bidding war for her ensues between Holden and Garth, and Holden wins and frees her. But in a complicated and insidious twist that Garth manipulates, she remains a slave. Meanwhile, a war brews between the Native American tribes and the colonists (who are portrayed as brave heroes, while the Natives are seen as savages).

As in many DeMille films, historical accuracy takes a backseat to spectacle, and most of the acting arrives overdone with the central exception of Cooper, who is, as usual, understated. DaSilva hams it up nicely. (He would be blacklisted shortly after this film and not work in features again until the early '60s.) Boris Karloff plays the role of Chief Guyasuta. Very few actual Native Americans play the "Indian" characters; the most notable was, ironically, Iron Eyes Cody, who was, in fact, an Italian-American actor famous for portraying Native Americans.

Goddard, who was so much better than the roles she was cast in, shows her spunk here, and gives us some idea of what her Scarlett O'Hara might have been like. (She was rumored to have been a major contender for the lead in "Gone with the Wind.") Watching her character being so mistreated and exploited made my blood boil. That, and knowing a man would have to rescue her. There was no contextualizing necessary, since Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, heck, not even Joan Crawford would have stood for such treatment and would have fought back. Shame on Mr. DeMille!

Nominated for a Best Special Effects Oscar, the film looks quite good on Blu-ray, realizing the limits of said visual effects in 1947. There are no major sound issues to report.

Astute film critic Nick Pinkerton provides non-stop audio commentary, speaking about everything from the politics of DeMille to the blacklist to careers to the controversies. Def worth a listen.

"Unconquered" was a DeMille film I was not familiar with. I found it offensive on many levels, but ridiculously entertaining. The plot is filled with cliches, and the romance is as soapy as they come, but I was hooked. It's also a horribly one-sided and unflattering representation of Native Americans.

And Paulette Goddard deserved better!

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton
    Theatrical Trailer

    "Unconquered" is available on Blu-ray on July 20, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.