Conquest (1937)



Director:  Clarence Brown. 

Starring:  Greta Garbo (Countess Marie Walewska), Charles Boyer (Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte), Reginald Owen (Tallyrand), Alan Marshal (Capt. d'Ornano), Henry Stephenson (Count Anastas Walewski), Leif Erickson (Paul Lachinski), Dame May Whitty (Laetitia Bonaparte), Maria Ouspenskaya (Countess Pelagia Walewska), C. Henry Gordon (Prince Poniatowski), Claude Gillingwater (Stephan, Marie's servant), Vladimir Sokoloff (Dying soldier), George Houston (Grand Marshal George Duroc).

a Polish countess becomes the mistress of Napoleon in an attempt to gain freedom for her country


Spoiler warning: below is the full story. 

Pretty good movie.  January 1807, Eastern Poland. A group of Cossacks descend upon the Polish mansion of Count Walewska and start to destroy the furnishings.  The Count and Countess, Marie Walewska, come down to confront the Cossacks and are harassed and threatened.  But the Cossacks have to leave quickly because a report comes in that Napoleon's French troops are on their way.  The Polish lancers arrive led by the brother of the countess, Paul.  

The Poles are very enthused by the arrival of Napoleon for they see him as the means of their liberation from foreign occupation.  Napoleon is described as the hope of the world.  The Countess is so entranced by the idea of Napoleon that she journeys to the town where he will be and meets him briefly. 

Two weeks later, Poniatowski Palace, Warsaw.  The Count and Countess attend a grand ball in honor of Napoleon.  The French emperor becomes entranced with her and almost makes a scene with his attentions to her.  He asks the Countess to come see him, but she resists and he calls her discourteous. 

But the Polish politicians have taken note of Napoleon's infatuation with the Countess.  They travel to her mansion to ask her, in the name of Polish freedom, to become, in so many words, Napoleon's mistress.  They are afraid that Napoleon might align himself with Russia.  The Count does not like the idea, but out of a feeling of patriotism the Countess Marie goes to see Napoleon.  Once there, however, she remarks that she is there "not of my own will."  That doesn't discourage Napoleon.  When she returns to the Count, he tells her "You fool, you fool" and says he will ask for an annulment of their marriage. 

Napoleon quarters his staff in the Count's mansion.  The Countess is very cool to him, but he starts to talk about romantic dreams of a "United States of Europe" which wins the heart of the Countess. 

Two months later.  Castle of Finckenstein, East Prussia.  Countess Marie finally tells Napoleon "I love you." 

The French foreign minister Talleyrand reports the establishment of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and the Countess is very grateful for the liberation of her country.  Her brother arrives and is very surprised to find his sister at Finckenstein.  She explains what has happened.  He is shocked and displeased and takes his leave despite his sister's entreaties not to go. 

Two years later, July 1809, The Rue de las Houssaie, Paris.  Marie meets Napoleon's mother, who takes a liking to the Countess.  Napoleon petitions Rome for an annulment of his marriage to Josephine.

Three years and two long wars (in Spain and Austria) later.  Marie is pregnant, but she does not tell Napoleon.  She is told that she is wanted in Vienna.

Three weeks later, Schoenbrunn Castle, Vienna.  Napoleon speaks of a naval blockade of England and probable war with Russia.  Talleyrand has advised him that he must have a male heir and that he should marry an aristocrat, preferably Marie-Louise of Austria, a Habsburg.  The Countess arrives in this atmosphere of tension and she is shocked at the change in atmosphere and Napoleon's further dreams of conquest.  She tells him that he is becoming like the Habsburg monarchs rather than a liberator.  She is distraught when she learns of his plans to marry Marie-Louise.  She tells Napoleon: "The liberator of Europe has become a son-in-law."  She leaves.

Napoleon marries Marie-Louise and they have a baby boy. 

Two years later, December 1812, the disastrous retreat from Moscow. 

Two years later.  Napoleon is a prisoner on the Island of Elba.  The Countess with her son by Napoleon comes to visit the once French Emperor.  She informs Napoleon that the boy is his child.  She wants to live with Napoleon on Elba, but Napoleon has renewed dreams of further conquest in Europe.  He uses Marie as a messenger to get a message through to his allies. 

One month after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.  July 1815, Port of Rochefort, France.  Napoleon is saying goodbye to his compatriots before he is to sail to imprisonment on the Island of St. Helens.  Marie appears once again.  She has a plan to have him escape to America.  But Napoleon rejects the idea and leaves to set sail for his final imprisonment. 

I was a little amused at how much time the movie spent on making sure the audience knew that Marie was not a slut, but a very good woman who only for the love of Poland and freedom reluctantly accepted the idea of becoming the mistress of Napoleon.   They also go to pains to show that the Count was horrified by the idea and resisted the plan.  They then grant a degree of freedom to the Countess by having the Count tell her that he will annul their marriage.  Even then, Marie has one more bout of resistance to Napoleon before giving in.  Today, this appears a bit quaint. 

The love story is not completely satisfactory for it cannot be really fulfilled.  Napoleon was ultimately too ambitious to marry a mere Polish countess. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


See  Pan Tadeusz  (2000) .



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