“California Conquest” (1952) features Teresa Wright as a pants-wearing, deadeye shot in the days before California’s annexation to the U.S. This may be the movie’s chief delight as the delicately feminine heroine of 1940s Hollywood took that precarious turn into 1950s longsuffering wife/neurotic spinster roles. Here, as an interlude between those eras in her career, she rides, shoots, and saves Cornel Wilde from whipping by shooting dead the bad guy.
This is nothing if not refreshing.
Most of the movie, however, belongs to Cornel Wilde as the dashing nobleman of Mexican heritage who runs guns and organizes a movement for California to become part of the U.S. The people of Mexican ancestry are all called Californians here, to distinguish them from Mexicans who live below the Rio Grande, the part of Mexico we didn’t snatch in the Mexican War. Teresa Wright is called an American here. She is not a Californian, though she lives here with her gunsmith father, who sells guns to Cornel Wilde’s political movement.
The “good” Californians want to be Americans. The “bad” ones want to stay part of Mexico, or, failing that, to become part of the territorial designs of Imperial Russia, which also has settlements here. Got that, class?
John Dehner plays the head bad guy, a bad Californian who wants his brother to be Governor. Graft is so much easier when you’ve got a relative in power.
The two lead “Californians” then are played by Wilde and Dehner, neither of which in real life are of Spanish/Mexican heritage. A large cast of Spanish-speaking actors play minor, mostly nameless characters, with the exception of Alfonso Bedoya, who plays Jose Martinez, the head goon of John Dehner.
Hollywood casted movies by its own caste system. We’ve seen it before. In one scene, Teresa Wright watches a street fight, standing behind two stoic Indians, also watching. Were they Modocs or Washoes? Shoshonis or Yokuts? Who knows, they are not considered Californians, either.
The movie attempts to be a lot of things: a swashbuckling adventure, an historical picture, and to be sure, gets off on the right foot with the title exposed by a man’s hand swiping a glittering blanket of gold coins off the table. A vivid storybook-ish image. In parts, the movie has all the panache of a Saturday kiddie matinee adventure flick.
But we’ve got a lead actress of Teresa Wright’s caliber, so she can’t just sit around twisting a hanky in her hands. This film, to its credit, give her lots of action, too. When her gunsmith father is murdered, she joins Wilde to go after the killer. Wilde is distressed at her men’s attire, which he calls “horrible”, but seems to be unruffled by her gun fighting skills, which seem to be better than his.
The villains are one-dimensional, and the interesting story of the rivalry of three powers - US, Russian, and Mexican all converging in this rich land is pretty much lost in characters spitting out simplistic facts as plot exposition at convenient moments. Maybe the movie attempts too much, or maybe not enough.
Teresa Wright says to Wilde, “I wonder if we Americans will ever understand you people.” To which Wilde replies, “You don’t have to. It’s more important that we understand you.”
Placards of official dogma make for an easy, and lazy, explanation of why the characters are going from point A to point B, but they do nothing to flesh out even the characters’ motivations, let alone the complexities of political reality.
It is easier to focus on the beautiful rugged terrain, which we see much of behind swarms of hard-riding Californians chasing each other on horseback. We see the elaborate Spanish dress of the nobles at the ball, where a specialty act performs a beautiful, passionate dance.
Mantillas and ruffled shirts, and sword fighting out on the red-tiled patio among the potted yucca plants. The guy in tight burgundy pants slays the guy in tight purple pants. No blood. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn did it better.
The ball brings Mr. Wilde and Miss Wright together again, and he marvels with relief that she looks more like a girl in her virginal white ball dress. There’s no romance yet; that doesn’t happen until they’ve been on the trail a few days, looking for the bad guys, and stop to rest in a hayloft. She’s back to a skirt for this scene, and well, there’s just something about haylofts. Instantly they are in love and planning a future life together.
But first, they trick the gang of bandits into leading them to the stolen guns, and John Dehner, and a Russian Count and Princess who are agents of the Czar. When the Princess balks at this pants-wearing female pointing a gun at her, Miss Wright, with absolutely no vestige of Peggy Stephenson left in her, remarks: “Lady, this gun will shoot anybody. It’s not particular.”
I love that line and her world-weary delivery.
Wilde is an almost too-cheerful hero, as if he is Robin Hood instead of a revolutionary, but since this movie drifts along on the mood of a kiddie matinee, his happy bravado is suitable, and the stereotype villains are serviceable, and the action is all we need to kill time.
It’s Teresa Wright who doesn’t quite fit, and not because she wears pants and a gun holster (which was probably a selling point for her to take this role). She’s too troubled for these shallow types around her, on a higher plane (and not the hayloft), where the deeper issues of California’s annexation await her consideration, figuring out what all this really means for her. She’s far too intelligent an actress to be stuck in this pop-up book.
Explorer John Fremont, the only real historical figure, shows up at the ball, despite the bandits that overturn his stagecoach, and tells the “good” Californians that the US will not annex California because Mexico is a neighbor and friend.
The Mexican War, from which we snagged a good chunk of Mexico, including California, would seem to contradict his assertion. Did anybody at the kiddie matinee catch that? Or did the kids in their red felt cowboy hats just knock back another handful of jujubes and cheer for the hard riding “good” Californians who, like they in school, pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and dreamed of cementing their heroism by pointing a gun in a haughty Russian’s face? Ah, 1952. Gotta love it.