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Conquest - 1937

Conquest 1937

Conquest - released Oct 22, 1937. Directed by Clarence Brown and Gustav Machaty. Starring Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer.

Napoleon in love

Greta Garbo plays a beautiful Polish wife who is sacrificed to the conquering leader of the French army (Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Boyer) that sweeps into Poland and kicks out the Cossacks that had just a bit earlier arrived as a ruthless Russian invasion force. But the title Conquest also works as a description of what happens when Napoleon gets emotionally attached to Greta (Countess Marie Walewska) and this connection moves through the years as Napoleon's career as a world-conquering emperor goes through its ups and downs.

Boyer makes for a likeable Napoleon, and his mannerisms and way of speaking seem a perfect model of a parody of Napoleon (Boyer himself was French, and so his accent is quite legitimate. Napoleon was actually Corsican and French was for him a second language.) I wonder if Conquest and Boyer's version of Napoleon seems familiar and more recent because his very nicely done portrayal has influenced what has come afterward (particularly in terms of comedy). Boyer's version is a lot like how we automatically "see" Napoleon, arms behind his back, walking forward hurriedly, emitting a kind of genius inquisitiveness.

There is some gentle humor in Conquest, especially with Maria Ouspenskaya whose character (Countess Pelagia Walewska) effortlessly trades lines with Boyer, building up a funny scene, bit by bit, involving a card game, before which the famous man is astounded to realize she's never heard of him and she doubts if any of his claims to world-wide importance are even true. As the conqueror begins losing to the little old lady at cards, this is when Greta will finally come into the scene, and it is a shame that there isn't more of this sort of entertainment value in the movie for Garbo to share in, because by the halfway point of the movie it has begun to get bogged down into trying to provide biography without the story really able to catch up. (In terms of earnings, this film did not do well at the box office.)

The title Conquest acts as a magnifying glass into the tale as we're shown that Napoleon has something like an addiction to finding importance through winning battles, and is determined to create a lasting line of Bonaparte children to establish a royal line (the story shows him forcing his way into the royal families of Europe via marriage, certain this will cement his fame and his name into history) but these efforts only demonstrate that for him marriage is just another strategy for success, in contrast to his long-term love affair with the Countess Walewska.

For her efforts (which at one point are encouraged by the leaders of Poland, desperate for Napoleon to keep the Russians out and to back their hope for independence), she eventually gets disowned by her husband, a much older Count (played by Henry Stephenson).

She and Napoleon will meet a few more times in the succeeding years, he repeatedly throwing away his chances for happiness with Garbo (and the child their affair has produced) so that he can continue pining for his military and political victories. At one point she provides a possible escape for Napoleon to leave the island prison of Elba where the British have him socked away, and traveling with her and their young son to America, but he will wistfully reject it.

The movie has splendid productions values, and is a very glossy M-G-M movie that features large movie sets, lots of extras (especially soldiers) and gorgeous period costuming. The story itself can't keep the quasi-biography of Napoleon going while also spinning the tale of a romance spanning years, and in the end both sides of the tale get hurt, and the story concentrates more on keeping it all straight instead of providing entertaining vignettes of this famous life. After awhile, Greta isn't given a lot to do but to show up periodically to demonstrate that Napoleon is still striving for greatness, yet still has a yen for her, and the tension that he might still somehow make the better decision (settle down with Garbo) is never established, for in the end, though he is her "conquest" he is still driven by his appetite for world importance.

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Original Page October 2017 | Updated March 2020

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