Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Howard Estabrook came up with the story for this 1932 RKO production, and it plays a bit like the Estabrook-scripted “Cimmarron” of the previous year, though it’s been divested of the epic trappings that made the earlier picture an award winner. Like most Wellman-directed movies of the era, it’s both ambitious and lean: Few filmmakers are capable of presenting such large chunks of characterization with Wellman’s seat-of-the-pants speed and looseness. The movie seems to wind down and regenerate every ten minutes, yet it’s verve and momentum hold it together — they give it a shape in your mind.
It’s of the look-how-far-we’ve-come genre that was popular with ’30s audiences, a large portion of which had been born in the 19th century and witnessed the advent of movies, the automobile, and the modern city. To these folks recent history must have seemed like a sort of movie, incredible yet real, and seeing their experiences concretized on screen must have been a communal act of affirmation. Pictures of this ilk — “Cimmarron” and Borzage’s “Secrets” are two others — aren’t nostalgic, exactly; they’re more concerned with recording, with getting it all down before it’s forgotten. And they’re too enamored of progress to be romantic about the past.
“Progress” would do as the motto of “The Conquerors.” The family at its center is always moving, both spiritually and physically: the rudimentary plot details their trek from New York to the Midwest, their founding of a banking empire, and their negotiation — not always successful — of historical cataclysms like the First World War. Taken as a whole the story isn’t particularly interesting, and it sounds some banal notes, especially when its characters stoop to delivering speeches about the value of keeping your chin up and sticking to it. But individual vignettes are exciting. Some favorite moments: a gasp-inducing shot of robbers being hanged on a single branch, their twitching legs intercut with the hooves of the horses used to hoist them; a montage of ankles and footwear that traces the maturation of a young woman; and a terrific backwards track showing a crowd — seemingly the whole town — suddenly surging forward like a wave upon recognizing a child’s imperilment. Some of the more interesting sequences, including, presumably, the effects-heavy ones encapsulating the cyclical booms and busts of the American financial markets, are the work of Slavko Vorkapich, the father of the eye-popping Hollywood montage. (Vorkapich is credited with “transitional effects.” The movie is about 30% transitions.)
Considering the wide-ranging nature of the picture, the cast is fairly limited. Comic support players Guy Kibbee and Edna May Oliver register most strongly, and they’re enjoyable even when Wellman allows them to overdo their shticks. I suspect the director enjoyed their verve more than he did star Richard Dix’s stalwart brand of gallantry.
- “The Conquerors” is available on DVD as part of Warner’s burn-on-demand Archive Collection.