'History meets Hollywood' chronicles Fort Pitt siege, film

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For the 1947 Pittsburgh premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's historical epic "Unconquered," which dramatized the 1763 siege of Fort Pitt, throngs lined Downtown streets for a parade that included the film's iconic director, Native Americans, covered wagons, and some of its lesser-known actors.

A decidedly smaller crowd gathered Saturday along the riverfront near the Fort Pitt Museum to watch Colonial re-enactors fire gunpowder from an 18th century-style cannon to commemorate the real events 250 years ago that inspired the movie and to kick off a year-long exhibit at the museum.

"It was the first and only time Fort Pitt was the star of its own movie," said Andrew Gaerte, education manager at the Fort Pitt Museum, who donned Colonial-era garb to take part in Saturday's festivities for "Unconquered: History Meets Hollywood at Fort Pitt."

The movie, which starred Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard and featured supporting players such as Boris Karloff, Ward Bond and Lloyd Bridges, played twice Saturday at the museum's auditorium as part of the opening celebration. Based on events during Pontiac's Rebellion, it features Mr. Cooper as an officer in the Virginia Regiment who fought Native Americans in the western frontier of Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. About 500 people -- including British and American soldiers and local settlers -- barricaded themselves inside Fort Pitt for two months during the summer of 1763 while the Native Americans surrounded it.

While "Unconquered" was a box-office success and among the top-grossing films of 1947, Mr. Gaerte acknowledged that DeMille "took a lot of historical license" with the story.

"He loved history ... but I don't think he could back away from adding a Hollywood touch," he said of the director best known for classics including "The Ten Commandments" and "The Greatest Show on Earth."

None of it was filmed in Pittsburgh; the closest filmmakers got was Cook Forest State Park outside Clarion, where they shot some location footage that included extras from Iroquois reservations in New York state.

To infuse a more authentic look into the frontier scenes, DeMille ordered 50 birch trees from Western Pennsylvania to be shipped to the primary set in Hollywood, Mr. Gaerte said.

Among those who watched the cannon fire at the Point and then headed to the museum was Eric Mason of Monroeville, a teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools who brought his four children, ages 3-12, and one of their friends.

"Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne, and Point Park played a critical role in the French and Indian War," he said. "I enjoy historical events and thought it would be a kick for the kids to see a historical cannon fired."

The exhibit runs through Aug. 3, 2014 with the movie scheduled to be screened on select weekends.

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Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580. First Published August 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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