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  • Warning: Spoilers
    If I may, if you want to understand the career of Sam Houston, turn to a wonderful old biography of the man called "The Raven" (Houston's nickname with the Indians) by Marquis James. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography back in 1937 or so. Houston was one of the two really big historical figures remembered from our Westward Expansion who were not gunfighters, gunslingers, or military men. He and "Deseret" / Utah founder Brigham Young are still impressive figures - and far more memorable than some of the U.S. Presidents of their age. In fact, Young's confrontation with the U.S. Government in the so-called "Mormon War" of 1857-60 makes one really wish he had been U.S. President rather than the joker we had at the time (James Buchanan). Houston might have made an interesting President too, but his only attempt to really get a nomination was in 1856, and it was with the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party.

    Houston had fought alongside Andrew Jackson, and rose in Tennessee politics as a Congressman and Governor. Then his very promising marriage to a socially connected young woman collapsed. The actual reason is still unknown, but this film wisely keeps most of the details in, including how it led to a divorce (unheard of in 1829), the resignation of Houston, and then a prolonged bender (he got a new name for awhile of "Big Drunk"). But with the help of the Cherokees (whom he always treated well) he regained his balance. He tried to get a better deal for them when they were ordered on the "Trail of Tears" by his pal Jackson, but I don't think he was as successful as the movie makes him. Then he turned to Texas, and eventually became the avenger of the Alamo at the battle of San Jacinto, and one of it's Presidents (there were about four Presidents of Texas). After it entered the Union he became it's senator. Later he was Governor of Texas as well.

    This film has some things going for it (so it deserves a "6"). Richard Dix, for once, has a part that fits him - his tendency to overact is not as evident. Joan Fontaine (in an early part) plays the snobbish first wife well. Gail Patrick (normally better known for her comic parts) plays the second wife nicely as understanding and loving. A number of prominent character actors are here, including C. Henry Gordon as Santa Anna, Ralph Morgan as Stephen Austin, Victor Jory as Travis, and Robert Armstrong as Jim Bowie. Even Jim Thorpe was an extra in the cast. But best was Edward Ellis as Andy Jackson, managing to make that dyspeptic President thoughtful and wise. His performance for this film makes us realize he was more than the actual "Thin Man".

    Herbert Yates always tried to make one prestige Republic film a year "Man Of Conquest" was the choice for 1939, and to an extent it is quite a cut above his regular cowboy fare. But it backfired this time: He tried go give a small fee to Marquis James for the use of the book. James rejected the paltry sum, so the film title was changed. Most of the material in the movie (mangled or otherwise) came from James' biography. This led to a plagiarism case which the great lawyer Louis Nizer discusses in "My Life In Court". It was won because the script writers copied a bit of poetic license used by James in the biography (an Indian chant sequence) that he added for color - including the language. Yates settled out of court.

    Houston has been seen in several films about Texas, like "The First Texan" and television's "The Road To Texas". But no definitive film has ever been made - possibly because he was a slave owner (as was Jackson). He does deserve one for his outlandish, and on the whole successful career. But if one would like to see a proper cap-off to any of these films, try to catch the old "Profiles In Courage" episode on Houston, starring J.D. Cannon, showing his fierce devotion to the Union in 1861, and how it led to political oblivion. Cannon in the conclusion puts his successful Confederate opponents to shame.
  • The dynamic and colorful life of Sam Houston is one of those epics stories that truly deserve a mini-series. Hopefully one day, one will be done for him. My guess is that his background as a slave owner works against having Houston honored in that way. One of the most glaring omissions of Man Of Conquest is the lack of black people and the issue of slavery which is one of the darker parts of the Texas story.

    The film resembles D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln biographical film in format. A quick passage through Houston's youth and military service with Andrew Jackson and he's governor of Tennessee. Then the story continues until the Battle Of San Jacinto with a brief epilogue. Another error mentions Houston was at the Battle Of New Orleans, he was not. He did however do some considerable Indian fighting, but also developed a great respect for the native people. In fact he moved in with his adoptive tribe, the Cherokees after the scandal of his divorce wrecked his political career in Tennessee.

    Richard Dix makes a solid and heroic Houston and his wives are played by Joan Fontaine as Eliza Allen and Gail Patrick as Margaret Lea. And Houston did not even meet Margaret Lea until after Texas was a republic on a visit to the United States.

    Mexico by not populating its territory north of the Rio Grande left it pretty much open to whomever would settle and for awhile it was only Comanches, Arankawas, and Kiowa tribes. The bulk of settlers from the USA came from the south and some brought slavery and their slaves with them. Eventually East Texas became a cotton growing region like the rest of the cotton culture south. This is the part we don't talk about in this film.

    The rest of the characters of Texas history are there, popularized by Walt Disney and John Wayne later on. Robert Armstrong, Robert Barrat, Victory Jory, Ralph Morgan, play Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Stephen F. Austin respectively. Edward Ellis plays a thinner and more subdued Andrew Jackson than you saw Lionel Barrymore do in The Gorgeous Hussy. Did you know Andrew Jackson took a secret trip to Texas while in the White House? I didn't either until I saw this film.

    Two of Republic Pictures cowboy sidekicks got roles in this film. Max Terhune, minus his ventriloquist dummy, plays famed scout Deaf Smith and Gabby Hayes has an all purpose fictional sidekick role.

    The Battle of San Jacinto isn't even played right. In fact it wasn't much of a battle because of the complete surprise that Houston got on General Santa Anna at dawn. The whole thing was over in about 20 minutes and more Texans lost their lives on the screen in Man Of Conquest than at the real battle.

    This was Republic Pictures big budget item for 1939 and got Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Musical Scoring. Herbert J. Yates really laid a lot of loot out from Republic for this film. The budget of about 10 Gene Autry and 10 Roy Rogers films went into Man Of Conquest.

    The best treatment of the Sam Houston story is in TV film Gone To Texas which starred Sam Elliot as Houston. Man Of Conquest has not worn well over the years and its glaring historical inaccuracies will make any true Texan wince.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    2nd unit director: B. REEVES EASON. Stunts staged by Yakima Canutt. Copyright 15 May 1939 by Republic Pictures Corp. New York opening at the Capitol: 27 April 1939. U.S. release: 15 May 1939. Australian release through British Empire Films: 10 August 1939. 99 minutes.

    SYNOPSIS: A potted biography of Samuel Houston (1793-1863) concentrating mainly on the trivial and the fictitious, whilst ignoring many of the more salient facts.

    COMMENT: With much raiding of library footage for its battle and montage shots, this Republic epic seems spectacular enough for unsophisticated audiences. Unfortunately though, they are the sort of patrons unlikely to sit still for all the pretty speeches of patriotic pep!

    Miscast, Richard Dix makes but a fair fist of the role. Gail Patrick is her usual self-righteous, colorless self; Victor Jory makes little of a miniscule part, whilst Robert Barrat is cast as an unlikely Davy Crockett and Robert Armstrong an equally unacceptable Jim Bowie. History or no history, George Hayes contributes his usual "Gabby" characterization, minus his crumpled hat.

    Of the main players, the only ones we really liked were Edward Ellis - and even he outlives his welcome - and Joan Fontaine. Of the cameo artists: Ralph Morgan, C. Henry Gordon, and of course Charles Stevens.

    OTHER VIEWS: Despite some impressive crowd scenes and an all-out battle climax, this Republic mini-epic concentrates on political polemics rather than action and characterization. All the characters are cut from the same one-dimensional cloth. Aside from Miss Fontaine who leaves the story early on, we weary of all the principals long before "The End" title signals the finish of our ordeal. George Nicholls Jr (borrowed along with Dix and Fontaine from RKO) directs this dreary affair in a resolutely plodding fashion. The boring scenario isn't even leavened by bright photography or a rousing score. In fact both photographer and composer contribute work well below their usual standard. Ruthless scissoring would have helped, but, as it is, this Man of Conquest is dullsville all the way from Tennessee to the Alamo. - John Howard Reid writing as George Addison.
  • The only reason why I watched this film is because Joan Fontaine is in it. She disappears within the first twenty five minutes of the film and then you're left with the journey towards the Alamo meeting characters like Davy Crockett and Bowie. This would be done better in John Wayne's 'The Alamo' and in an episode of 'The Time Tunnel' that focuses on the Alamo siege. This offering is an early attempt to tell the story of the Alamo twenty-one years before John Wayne would tell a better story. It's not a good film, but you can't condemn the effort. If you've got no film about the Alamo then it's better to have a film (even if it's bad) rather than no film. I would say to Joan Fontaine fans to stay away from this film.