July 26, 2016

The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920)
Grade: 69/100

Director: Oscar Micheaux
Stars: Iris Hall, Walker Thompson, Lawrence Chenault

What it's about. Eve Mason (Iris Hall) is a very light-skinned young black woman who inherits a prospector's shack from her late grandfather. She travels to the shack, apparently in the Pacific Northwest, and immediately encounters prejudice from hotel owner Driscoll (Lawrence Chenault), who forces her to sleep in the barn.

There, Eve is frightened by a vivacious black man (E.G. Tatum, a favorite supporting actor of Micheaux). She flees during a thunderstorm, but is rescued by black prospector Van Allen (Walker Thompson), who turns out to be her new next-door neighbor, and obvious romantic interest.

Because it is a movie, Driscoll learns that Van Allen's land is a potential oil field. Driscoll colludes with local scoundrels August Barr (Louis Dean) and an Indian Fakir (Leigh Whipper) to force Van Allen to sell his valuable land for a song.

How others will see it. Second tends to be less popular than first, and so it is with The Symbol of the Unconquered. Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving black-directed feature, and remains better known than The Symbol of the Unconquered. If the only print of Within Our Gates, found in an obscure Spanish vault, had not survived, then The Symbol of the Unconquered would be first, and would assuredly command greater interest.

The other handicap faced by The Symbol of the Unconquered is that its climactic scene, Van Allen's defense of his humble property against masked riders of the Klan, is lost. Apparently, Van Allen knocked the riders off their horses by throwing bricks at them. Possibly, a cavalry of sorts came to the rescue, compelled into action by Eve, Driscoll's mother, or August Barr's wife.

But without the big action scene, all we have is a mild allegorical tale of our manly man hero (Van Allen) besting the bad guys and collecting the rewards: oil wealth and the leading lady. This sort of Horatio Alger tale was dull even one century ago.

Some viewers dislike the score, by black jazz drummer Max Roach. But I rarely listen to silent film scores, unless they are original to the film, e.g. a Charlie Chaplin 1930s movie

How I felt about it. The Symbol of the Unconquered was another of writer/producer/director Micheaux's answer movies to Birth of a Nation, a box office smash that heralded the Ku Klux Klan as champions of young white female virginity against the bogeymen blacks. Here, the Klan, presumably renamed to avoid a libel lawsuit, is merely a rag-tag coalition intended to separate a black man from his property.

The plot is straightforward, compared to Within Our Gates, but does have superfluous characters. The Indian Fakir, for example, seems to do nothing except collude with villainous August Barr, and perhaps Mother Driscoll is present only to draw a laugh from the audience for spoiling the creepy Driscoll's well-planned conquest of the fair young lady. We wonder why Driscoll's mother has tracked down the son who throttled her, only to instead stay at Eve's homestead. It seems unlikely that the postman's lost letter, found by the hissable Driscoll, is apparently an unsolicited appraisal of Van Allen's tiny bit of land (he lives in a tent) as the cap atop a mammoth untapped oil reservoir.

But as usual with a Micheaux film, the allegorical nature of the characters are of greater interest than the story and its contrived happy ending. The triumphant hero is black. Driscoll, the light-skinned black who despises his black mother, is a villain, and racist. August Barr and the Indian Fakir are also antagonists, but they are not racists. They are merely self-serving scoundrels. The only white woman in the story, Mary Barr, is a friend to Eve and Van Allen.

The horse thief, old Bill Stanton, is apparently an important figure in the local Klan chapter. But he is merely another dishonest man instead of a racist, willing to associate with a Native American, and Indian fakir, and a light-skinned black if this is in his financial interest.

Thus, the movie has several villains, but only one racist: Driscoll. For his bad behavior, he is presumably killed by Van Allen during the missing scene. We'll probably never know, unless another print somehow turns up. It is interesting that during the barroom battle between Van Allen and Driscoll, several amused white onlookers make no effort to aid Driscoll, and in fact laugh at him once the scuffle is over.