Although Cecil B. DeMille remains best known for his star-studded Biblical epics throughout the 1930s and 1940s he made a series of similarly grandiose historical adventures exploring significant episodes from America's past. Following in the wake of The Plainsman (1937), Union Pacific (1939) and Northwest Mounted Police (1940) – which featured the same stars – Unconquered takes place in colonial times only a few years before the American Revolution.
Set in the year 1763, the film serves up a fictionalized account of the so-called “Conspiracy of Pontiac” where a resourceful Indian known as Pontiac united many of the tribes in the Ohio valley to revolt against American settlers and British troops and thus reclaim the land. Against this combustible backdrop, unjustly convicted English lass Abby Hale (Paulette Goddard) is sentenced to slavery in the colonies. Aboard a ship in Virginia, she draws the compassion of colonial Captain Chris Holden (Gary Cooper) who gallantly buys her freedom. Unfortunately, odious fur trader Garth (Howard Da Silva) finds Abby too beautiful to relinquish. He manages to steal her away to back-breaking servitude at a trader's outpost with far worse in store. Meanwhile Chris suspects Garth is supplying the Indians with guns and fermenting an uprising so he can have a monopoly of the fur trade. His attempts to expose Garth reunite him with Abby as together they are engulfed in events leading up to a tremendous battle between brave settlers and hostile Indians.
Narrated by DeMille himself in typically authoritarian fashion, Unconquered is an uncomfortable melange of starchy history lesson and the kind of corny bodice-ripping yarn one would expect from one of those cheesy romance novels. Indeed the film was dubbed “The Perils of Paulette” by some wags on the Paramount lot. No doubt referring to the serial-like plot that propels the heroine from one indignity to another as she is repeatedly bound captive and abused with ravishing Paulette Goddard stripped down to her undergarments. It is a comic book take on history, though alas not as lively as one, with pantomime performances including an uncharacteristically bad one from Paulette Goddard. Given how she sparkled in her roles opposite Charlie Chaplin and Bob Hope and worked well with Jean Renoir, one can only conclude DeMille was at fault. Although this was their third film together the actress and director never really got on. During filming DeMille was enraged when Paulette refused to perform in a stunt sequence where he pelted the cast with real fireballs and flaming arrows. Which was a wise move on her part given a stunt woman and several extras were injured. Nevertheless, DeMille had his revenge later when he refused Paulette the role Gloria Grahame played in his circus extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), a decision that likely hastened her career decline in the Fifties.
It falls to a reliably rugged Gary Cooper to anchor things as our dashing hero though the film still compares poorly with John Ford's stirring saga of frontier life, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). On the positive side, DeMille brings the colonial period to life in vivid detail and the dialogue has the odd poetic flourish even if the plot is pure cornball. Thematically the film is as reactionary as one would expect of DeMille who vociferously champions the colonialists as “the unconquered.” Free spirits who, as Chris repeatedly insists, will steadfastly endure everything nature throws at them. Which, in spite of our awareness in the twenty-first century of the injustice in usurping the Native Americans, is an acceptable stance. These people did endure great hardship to forge a nation. Ford's film similarly celebrates the frontier spirit. However, while DeMille does not hold back in condemning white slavery as a heinous historical crime he sidesteps the thornier issue of black slavery. Note the scene where Chris' slave pleads to be taken away with him but is politely ignored. The film's attitude towards Native Americans is no less suspect although DeMille does at least try to craft a more complex character in the form of Hanna (Katherine DeMille), Garth's conflicted Indian wife. Later on Boris Karloff makes a notable appearance as Indian chief Guyasuta. The iconic horror star is convincing enough but his character is one-dimensional reduction of the historical Pontiac while the other Indians are drawn largely as snarling savages or simpletons who repeatedly fall for white men's tricks.
Much of Unconquered is stuffy, self-important and slow. There is a whole lot of talk to get through before DeMille doles out his trademark spectacle. Things get somewhat livelier once the action hits the frontier with an exceptional chase across the river rapids climaxing with a thrilling plummet down a waterfall. The aforementioned fiery siege is another staggering set-piece but these instances aside DeMille takes his foot off the pedal too often.