Friday, February 16, 2024


One of those movies that I had noticed on the TCM schedule several times but never got around to watching was Conquest. So with that in mind, the most recent time it was on the TCM schedule, I finally made a point of getting it on the DVR in order to be able to watch it and do a review here.

The movie starts off with an intertitle stating that the action is set in Eastern Poland in 1807. Now, for those who know your history, you may recall that over the previous roughly 40 years, Poland's neighbors: Prussia, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, had cooperated to take bits and pieces of the country until there was no longer a Poland as an independent entity. Count Walewski (Henry Stephenson) has worked for the last king, but now his estate is in Russian territory, and the Russians come in to commandeer the estate, running the horses into the house. This greatly distresses him and his young wife, the Countess Marie Walewska (Greta Garbo).

However, it's a chaotic political situation as Napoleon (Charles Boyer) has been moving from the west. Soon, the Countess' brother Paul (Leif Erickson) arrives to inform the Walewkis about this. And it's not long before Napoleon does make it as far as the Walewski estate and even is the guest of honor at a party there as he sets up what is a vassal buffer state in the Duchy of Warsaw. But at least the Polish people get to have something of their own for a little while. Anyhow, it's at that party that Napoleon first meets Countess Waleska. The two quickly develop an attraction to each other.

But, there's a problem. Both of them are already married, even if it is a marriage of convenience for both of them: Walewska needed the sort of money and a good name that the Count could provide, while Napoleon needed a wife who could produce him an heir and was from a place that could serve as a political ally on the grander European stage, which is why he married Josephine.

Fast forward a couple of years. Both Napoleon and Waleska are still married to their respective spouses, but they've both been unfaithful. Seemingly happily for Marie, her husband is willing to seek an annulment. And Napoleon, not having been given an heir by Josephine, is planning to get an annulment of his own. So it's with this in mind that Marie heads off to Vienna where Napoleon currently is.

They resume their relationship, and Marie even winds up pregnant with what is presumably Napoleon's child. Sadly for Marie however, she can't really offer anything of political advantage for Napoleon, so he decides to get married to an Austrian princess instead. This is only 1810, which means Napoleon still has the disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia ahead of him, as well as the first exile to Elba, the triumphant return to France, and then Waterloo before finally being sent way too far away to St. Helena. Marie pines for her Napoleon through all of this....

Conquest is the sort of material that may be it bit hokey for some, setting a silly romance against the backdrop of Great Events. But it's all based on real people, and how much of a relationship Walewska had with Napoleon is still a matter of debate. (DNA testing suggested that the real-life Marie may in fact have borne Napoleon's son.) And Conquest was made at MGM, which is exactly the right studio to make a costume drama like this, with all the gloss they could bring to the material. Garbo does a good job as Countess Waleska, but the movie is really Boyer's; after all, Napoleon in a proment place in any movie is going to be the natural focus.

Conquest is a fine example of the MGM magic in action, and definitely a movie worth watching.

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