The Conqueror (1956)
This epically bad retelling of Ghengis Khan is universally derided as one of the worst films of all time and the subject of much controversy over its use of a nuclear test site as a location.
It filled its producer Howard Hughes with such guilt he later paid an estimated $12 million dollars buying up every print of the film so no one could see it (not even on TV) for seventeen years. In fact The Conqueror is sometimes known as “An RKO Radioactive Picture” because it was filmed on a location in Utah contaminated with nuclear fall-out, with contaminated soil even being shipped back to the studio set in Los Angeles. Over the next 20 years many of the cast and crew (including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward & Pedro Armendariz) developed cancer. In fact in 1980 People magazine researched the health of the cast and crew and discovered that 91 of the 220 people who worked on the film had developed cancer but even then this didn’t include the Native American extras or visiting friends and relatives (including Wayne’s son Michael).
The film itself is every bit as bad as it reputation suggests, hilariously inaccurate historically, unintentionally silly with ludicrously miscast actors banging leadenly portentous dialogue at each other and shot through with truly unpleasant misogyny.
When Wayne as Temujin (later Ghengis Khan) first spies Susan Hayward’s Tartar princess Bortai he says of her “I feel this Tartar woman is for me. My blood says, take her.” According to The Guardian “Few actors could make lines like that sound good, and John Wayne wasn’t one of them.” It’s difficult not to agree. Writer Oscar Millard, aware that his screenplay was, in his own words, “nothing more than a tarted up Western” determined to give his dialogue an “archaic flourish”. And boy, does he. Again, according to The Guardian “Poor old Wayne has to prance about saying things such as “I greet you, my mother!” where normal people would say “Hello, mum!””
The plot revolves around Temujin’s obsession with Bortai, the Tartar princess he captures from a Merkit warlord who he humiliates then slays. Bortai was in fact the name of Temujin’s real-life wife but she was a Mongol like him and they were betrothed aged 9 and 10, but here he abducts her and manhandles her roughly whilst declaring “Woman, I take you for wife”. She professes hatred for him but quivers and swoons every time he comes near her, succumbs to his roughhouse seduction techniques and later decides she loves him so much she betrays her father and her own people to him. At one point when she briefly resists him he even gives her a smack in the face. Hollywood sexual politics at its very worst. Susan Hayward though is a fiery presence and, along with Hispanic actor Pedro Armendariz as Temujin’s blood-brother Jamuga, is by some distance the best thing in the film.
Younger readers may not be so aware of John Wayne’s place in movie history but during my childhood it’s safe to he was probably the biggest film star on the planet, famed for his sturdy presence and laconic drawl. Whether Wayne could actually act or not is open to debate but it’s fair to say he had far better days than this ludicrously inappropriate bit of “ethnicing-up”. The screenplay was originally written for Marlon Brando but, according to the story, Wayne was discussing scripts with director Dick Powell and when the latter was called away for a few minutes he returned to find Wayne enthusiastically poring over the script for The Conqueror. Although Powell attempted to talk him out of it Wayne had set his heart on playing a 12th Century Mongolian warlord. As Powell later said, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?” Wayne reportedly took the role very seriously, going on a crash diet and taking Dexdrine tablets four times a day, but appears hopelessly uneasy on-screen and later regretted the movie so much he cringed at the very mention of it and once remarked that the moral of the film was “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”
Elsewhere, Armendariz aside, the film features lots of Caucasian American film actors hamming desperately away in tribal robes as if they’re in a particularly bad am-dram production but with a much bigger budget. At its very best the film more resembles a weak episode of Star Trek than a historical epic.
Of particular mention is John Hoyt as The Shamen at the court of Weng Khan, a character so slippery and treacherous his motives become so tangled that by the time he delivers his final explanation it is rendered virtually incomprehensible. Hoyt affects a hilariously bad sing-song accent but to his credit eschews taped eye-lids, preferring instead to squint his eyes into epicanthic slits. None of this is helped by the fact that the wardrobe department saw fit to costume him in a silly white conical hat straight out of some medieval pageant. Must be seen to be believed.
Favourite scene? The one that contains this little gem, “So be it, Temujin, the slow death, joint by joint from fingertip upwards shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece shall hour by hour and day by day be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures”
More Yellowface Film Review tomorrow. Meantime, this evening we enter the final stand of 5 performances of The Fu Manchu Complex.