CONQUEST (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1937), directed by Clarence Brown, is not a full-fledged biography nor grand scale remake of the four hour silent epic of director Abel Gance's French masterpiece, NAPOLEON (1927), though any attempt might have been interesting. Instead, this historical mini 112 minute epic indicates: "This is a story of an historic love. The imaginary detail supplied by the dramatist has not violated the spirit of this immortal romance." Starring the fine combination of Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer for the first and only time, CONQUEST, like NAPOLEON, falls into a lavish scale style, fortunately not at four hours. It does, however, equally balance these leading performers to the best capacity in screen entertainment. Reportedly a box office disappointment upon release, it was Boyer, not Garbo, who garnered enough attention to earn an Academy Award nomination, indicating Boyer was not just an ordinary Garbo co-star, but a logical choice to play Napoleon.
Told in detailed title format, the first chapter reads, "January 1808, Eastern Poland" followed by rebellious horseback riding Cossacks invading and destroying personal property of the luxurious home of 75-year-old Count Wakenski (Henry Stephenson) and his attractive, younger third wife, Marie (Greta Garbo). Shortly after the intruders depart comes Marie's brother, Lieutenant Paul Pachinski (Leif Erickson) of the French Army, with news of the Emperor Napoleon and his Army arriving in Poland. Later that night, Marie leaves home just long enough to see and capture the attention of Napoleon (Charles Boyer) while standing outside a church. Chapter Two: "Two months later, at the Poniatowski Palace, Warsaw" - The Count and Marie attend a ball where Napoleon, after meeting with the Countess once more, attracts attention from surprising guests by being together on the dance floor. Though Marie consoles her husband of Napoleon's love letters to her, it is Senator Malachowski (George Zucco) who encourages her to accept Napoleon's invitation so he can free Poland. Having gone against her husband's wishes, Wakewski leaves Marie and annuls their marriage. Chapter 3: "The Castle of Finckenstein, East Prussia" - With Napoleon and his personal staff seeking shelter in the Wakenski home, Marie acts coldly towards the aggressive guest. Things eventually change as Napoleon's loneliness falls into Marie's own personal pattern. After Marie's brother learns of their affair, he loses all respect for them. Chapter 4: "Two years later, July, 1809, The Rue De La Houssaie, Paris" - Bonaparte's mother, Laetitia (Dame May Witty) confronts Marie of her son's intention on divorcing his wife, Josephine; Chapter 5: "Three Weeks Later, Schoebrunn Castle - Vienna" - Napoleon encounters an assassin; Talleyrand (Reginald Owen) encourages Napoleon to marry the Duchess Marie Louise of Hapsburg in order to have an heir of royal blood. The news proves disappointing for Marie; Chapter 6: "Two years later, December 1812, The Retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow through Poland," Napoleon and Army march through a stormy blizzard and encounter a half frozen soldier; Chapter 7: "Two years later, August 18, 1814, The Island of Elba" - After a defeat at Waterloo, Marie arrives with a surprise for Napoleon; Chapter 8: "One month after Waterloo, July 1815, The Port of Rochefemas, France." Napoleon goes into exile.
In the supporting cast are Claude Gillingwater Sr. (Stefan, Marie's loyal servant); Alan Marshal (O'Ornano); C. Henry Gordon (Prince Poniatowski); and Scotty Beckett (Alexander). Maria Ouspenskaya should not go unmentioned as the Countess Pelagia, Wakewski's sister with memory loss. Her card playing encounter with Napoleon is as noteworthy as Napoleon telling Marie that, "You are the only woman whose favor I ever begged for." Aside from a smooth underscoring by Herbert Stothart, and impressive sets, CONQUEST, which often cries for Technicolor as well as extensive war battle scenes, the camera shows Garbo to great advantage on numerous occasions of her now mature, yet stunning beauty.
No stranger to broadcast television prior to the 1980s, CONQUEST, with availability after-wards on video and DVD formats, remains a much underrated Garbo product. Interestingly, in the 1990 documentary, "The Divine Garbo," as hosted by Glenn Close, of all the Garbo films, CONQUEST did not get a single mention, almost as the movie itself never existed, which is quite unfortunate. CONQUEST may not be accurate in its historic account nor will it ever become a sort-after Garbo conquest in cinema history, but it's certainly worth exploring the next time it broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies. (****)