Cecil B. DeMille is one of the hardest figures in the history of cinema to assess. He virtually invented Hollywood. He certainly created the classic image of what a movie director looked like. His name is known to people who don’t even think about directors, and who may have never seen a foot of any of his movies. (Though the probability of anyone living through many Easters without bumping into his 1956 The Ten Commandments seems slim.) He was a filmmaking chameoleon. When his popular sex comedy dramas — with their obligatory bathtub scenes — became impractical when censorship reared its head in 1923, he quickly realized that people had sex and took baths in the Bible, too, and so he became very pious indeed. He was also a tireless self-promoter — he appeared in the trailers to his films and often narrated them, leaving no doubt as to whose movie you were watching. In terms of fame, commercial success, and movie histoy, his importance is unquestioned. His position as a filmmaker is another matter.
There’s a photo taken on the set of DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra that shows fellow Paramount directors Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg watching the proceedings with a mixture of obvious amusement and condescension. That picture neatly sums up the general critical stance on DeMille’s entire career — and in some ways it always did. He was famous. He was powerful. He was popular. But he was rarely afforded much respect. It’s not hard to see why. His preferred mode — epics and spectacles — didn’t encourage respect. His piety — which he seems to have come to believe himself — didn’t help. Worse, the fact that his movies were…well, rather silly pretty much cooked his goose. While all this is undeniable, DeMille at his best made very entertaining movies.
Without getting into the esoterica of his bizarre Madam Satan (1930) or the jaw-dropping fascism of This Day and Age (1933), DeMille was usually as his most entertaining — and least pompous — with his westerns. The biggest, if not the best, of these is Unconquered (1947) — a lavish, overproduced, overlong, over-the-top Technicolored movie starring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard. Oh, it’s not technically a western. It’s pre-Revolutionary War settlers versus Indians — a kind of overblown dumbed-down take on John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). In its heart, however, it’s a western — a big one, a politically incorrect one, and a massively entertaining one. It plays very much like his The Plainsman (1936) — but with an extra half hour and in color. The plot is not dissimilar with Gary Cooper starring in both as the one man who knows that some villainous white man is supplying the Native American with weapons. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. The bad guys are very bad, the good guys very credulous, the hero very smart and honorable.
It is a “perfect” DeMille picture. Everything you expect is here — including a bathtub scene (in a barrel) for a very fetching Paulette Goddard. It’s all bigger than it needs to be. It’s very Hollywood — even to the constant misunderstandings between Cooper and Goddard — not to mention the casting of Boris Karloff as the chief of the Senecas. And we also get DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine DeMille as Karloff’s daughter. There’s excitement, danger, romance, adventure, comedy, you name it. It’s not a great film, but it’s one hell of a movie. And that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. Top notch production values, gleaming cinematography, and the always appealing Gary Cooper make sure of that.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Unconquered Tuesday, Aug. 5 , at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.