Cast & Crew
In the years between 1825 and 1841, California, a province of Mexico, is torn by internal strife. While France and Russia attempt to gain a foothold in the rich land, many of California's people hope to be annexed by the United States, a development that they believe would bring them freedom. One of these Californians is Don Arturo Bordega, who rides toward la Reina de Los Angeles with the intent of buying defensive weapons from gunsmith Sam Lawrence. Arturo and his servant Juan are pursued by bandits, but they manage to elude their attackers and arrive safely in Los Angeles. The don and several other Californians, including the ambitious and greedy brothers, Ernesto and Fredo Brios, plan to discuss U.S. interest in the territory with Capt. John C. Fremont at a ball that evening. As Fremont approaches Los Angeles, however, the same bandits attack his coach, killing everyone but him. At the ball that evening, Don Ernesto, who hopes to be named governor of California, seems surprised when Fremont arrives for the meeting. His head wrapped in bandages, Fremont explains that the U.S. has no intention of becoming involved in Mexico's internal conflicts. Annexation would depend on proof that the majority of Californians would support such a move. Following Fremont's departure, Don Fredo hints that Arturo is a threat to their plans, whereupon Don Ernesto challenges Arturo to a duel for having insulted him earlier that day. Their furious sword fight ends in Don Ernesto's death, but at that moment, the bandits, led by José Martinez, attack the gunsmith's shop, killing Sam and stealing his firearms. Sam's beautiful daughter Julia is devastated by her father's murder, and when she learns that Arturo plans to infiltrate Martinez's gang, she follows the don on horseback. Attracted to Julia and concerned for her safety, Arturo orders her to return home, but she, declaring that she is an excellent shot, is determined to avenge her father's death and joins him in pursuit of Martinez. They arrive in Monterey just in time to learn that the Brios brothers hired Martinez to steal the guns. Dressed as a poor laborer, Arturo robs Martinez of his payment and returns to Julia with the bandit in close pursuit. There he feigns admiration for Martinez, calling him the "friend of the people" for opposing the "gringo" takeover of California. Martinez is flattered and accepts Arturo and his "wife" Julia into his gang. The bandits raid and burn the ranches of many of the California landowners who favor annexation, but at each attack, Arturo secretly leaves the same note: "Be of courage." At Fort Ross, Don Fredo meets with Count Alexander Rotcheff and Princess Helena de Gagarine, the niece of the Russian czar. Because Don Fredo has paid Martinez to intimidate the landowners and secure a cache of guns, he predicts that there will be no trouble when the czar's soldiers place California under Russian protection. In return for his assistance, the Russians will make Don Fredo governor of the territory. Julia attempts to flee the Martinez gang in order to warn the local citizens of the takeover plans, but she is caught. Arturo is whipped for her transgression, after which she grabs a gun, reveals her true identity, and shoots Martinez. Julia then rides to the governor's office for help, while Arturo heads for Don Fredo's hacienda just ahead of the remaining bandits. Julia learns that the Mexican governor has no troops to defend the province from the impending Russian attack, but some of the citizens band together and head for the hacienda. Meanwhile, Arturo sneaks into Don Fredo's house and kills the don in a brutal fight. Julia and her group of citizens capture the Russian princess, but the attacking Russian soldiers outnumber the Californians. During the battle, Arturo and Julia load a powder keg onto a wagon, light the fuse, and push the wagon toward the Russians, where it explodes. With the Russian threat removed, Julia and Arturo plan their future together.
William P. Wilkerson
Ellis W. Carter
Charles S. Gould
Robert E. Kent
California Conquest -
The film was ostensibly based on "The Curse of Capistrano," the same story that Douglas Fairbanks turned into The Mark of Zorro (1920), but by the time the script reached the cameras the inspiration was limited to time and place. The film twisted history into pure fiction to transform the adventure into a fight against a Russian conspiracy to take over the state with the help of greedy landowners (led by John Dehner) and a bandit army led by the notorious outlaw José Martínez (Alfonso Bedoya). In the atmosphere of the Cold War and the looming threat of the blacklist, Hollywood was bending over backwards to prove its patriotism. The Variety reviewer noted the timely connection in his review, observing that the plot "purports to show that Russia had her eye on the rich land [of California] even back in those days...."
Columbia Pictures was the most frugal of the major studios and producer Sam Katzman specialized in cranking out inexpensive genre pictures, be they adventures, war pictures, crime movies, serials, or westerns. For California Conquest, Katzman had genuine A-list stars in the lead and a Technicolor palette, and he turned to veteran filmmaker Lew Landers to give the picture its excitement. It was Landers' fourteenth film for Katzman and he delivered swordfights, a runaway stagecoach, horseback chases and gun battles (with Mexican bandits taking the place of rampaging Indians), and even a little bullwhip action.
Reliable man of action Cornel Wilde was equally at home in urban crime dramas and muscular action pictures and swashbucklers. He'd already been Robin Hood, the son of D'Artagnan, and an arrogant trapeze superstar in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), when he took the lead as the gentleman adventurer with a flair for swordsmanship. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio originally considered Patricia Medina for the lead. Teresa Wright, who had earned Oscar nominations for her performances in The Little Foxes (1941) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and won for her supporting performance in Mrs. Miniver (1942), spends as much time in jeans and work shirts as she does in glamorous attire. It's only her second western but if there's a constant in her career, it is the strength of her characters and her commitment to her roles, and Julie is one tough customer: a committed businesswoman, a crack shot, and a hardy frontier veteran equally at home on the trail or undercover in a bandit camp.
The scene stealer of the film, however, is the Mexican character actor Alfonso Bedoya, who made his first impression on American screens in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) with the legendary line: "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges." After a career in Mexican films, he became a busy supporting player in Hollywood, playing everything from bandit villains to loyal sidekicks, and he had a flair for adding unexpected character touches to routine parts.
By Sean Axmaker
AFI Catalogue of Feature Films
California Conquest -
Teresa Wright (1918-2005)
She was born Muriel Teresa Wright in New York City on October 27, 1918. She showed a keen interest in acting in grade school, and by the time she was 19, she made her Broadway debut in Thorton Wilder's Our Town (1938); the following year she scored a hit as Mary, the weeping ingénue in Life with Father (1939). The word was out that New York had a superb young acting talent on hand, and Samuel Goldwyn soon brought her to Hollywood for William Wyler's adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1941). She scored an Oscar® nomination for her film debut as Regina Giddens' (Bette Davis), honorable daughter, Alexandria.
She maintained her amazing momentum by scoring two Oscar® nominations the following year for her next two films: as Carol Miniver in Wyler's Mrs. Miniver (Best Supporting Actress Category), and as Lou Gehrig's (Gary Cooper) faithful wife Ellie in Pride of the Yankees (Best Actress Category), and won the Oscar for Miniver. Yet for most fans of Wright's work, her finest hour remains her perfectly modulated performance as young Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Wright's performance as the self-effacing, impressionable young niece who gradually realizes that her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotton) may have murdered several widows is effective since Wright's air of observation, subtly turns from idol gazing, to a watchful air of caution as the facts slowly being to unravel. 60 years on, fans of Hitchcock still acclaim Wright's performance as an integral part of the film's classic status.
She proved her talents in comedy with the delightful Casanova Brown (1944), but then saw her schedule slow down due to domesticity. After she married screenwriter Niven Busch in 1942, she gave birth to son, Niven Jr., in 1944, and took two years off to look after her family. She soon returned to film with another Wyler project, the Oscar®-winning, post war drama, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), playing Fredric March's level-headed daughter, Peggy, she again took some time off after giving birth to her daughter, Mary in 1947. On her second attempt to return to the big screen, Wright found her popularity on the wane. Her wholesome image was in sharp contrast of the tougher, more modern women in post-war Hollywood, and her stubborn refusal to pose for any swimsuit or cheesecake photos to alter her image led to her release from Sam Goldwyn's contract.
As a freelance actress, Wright still found some good roles, notably as a young widow in the thriller scripted by her husband, in The Capture; and as a faithful fiancée trying to help Marlin Brandon deal with his amputation in Stanley Kramer's The Men (both 1950). Yet within a few years, she was playing middle-aged mothers in film like The Actress (1953), and The Track of the Cat (1954), even though she was still in her early '30s. By the mid-50s she found work in live television, where she could apply her stage training, in a number of acclaimed shows: Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater, Four Star Playhouse, and The United States Steel Hour.
She took a break from acting when she married her second husband, the playwright Robert Anderson in 1959, (she had divorced her first husband, Busch, in 1952) and was out of the public eye for several decades, save for an isolated theater appearance. When she did return, it was intermittent, but she was always worth watching. In James Ivory's Roseland (1977), a portrait of the New York dancehall; she was poignant as a talkative widow obsessed with her late husband; and as an enigmatic old actress in Somewhere in Time, she nearly stole the picture from leads, Christopher Reeve and Jayne Seymour. She was still active in the '90s, appearing a few hit shows: Murder, She Wrote, Picket Fences; and a final film role in John Grisham's The Rainmaker (1997). She is survived by her son, Niven; daughter, Mary; and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Teresa Wright (1918-2005)
The working title of this film was The Crimson Mask. Although a April 26, 1951 HR news item announced that Columbia had purchased from the estate of Douglas Fairbanks the rights to Johnston McCulley's serial story "The Curse of Capistrano" (All-Story Weekly, 9 August-6 September 1919), McCulley's story was only the inspiration for California Conquest. Fairbanks had produced and starred in a 1920 film based on the story, The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo and released by United Artists in 1920 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20).
A April 17, 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item indicated that Patricia Medina was considered for a leading role in California Conquest. A studio-supplied plot summary for the film, contained in the MPAA/PCA file at the AMPAS Library, credits Robert Shayne with the role of "Capt. John C. Fremont," but that role was played by George Eldredge. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, the film was partially shot on location at Sonora, CA.
Along with its depiction of the Mexican heritage of California, the film highlights a Russian plan to attack and assume control of the territory. Tying this subplot to contemporary fears of Russian/Communist infiltration of the United States, the Variety reviewer wrote that the plot "purports to show that Russia had her eye on the rich land [of California] even back in those days...." Founded in 1781 on a Spanish grant, Los Angeles was originally known as Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles, Our Lady Queen of the Angels. In 1812 the Russians established Fort Ross along the northern coast of California as a trading and fur-trapping center. They maintained Fort Ross until 1841.