The Conqueror (1956) Dick Powell

Production Budget: $6 million

Gross: $4.5 million

John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

That’s it! Really, do I need to say anymore? If I wrote a fifty page paper on this movie, would it make any more of a difference than just reading that one line? That one line will either have you running for the hills or drawn to it out of some sick masochistic fetish to see one of the worst casting decisions in film history. Your reaction to that line is a kind of cinematic Rorschach test. I’m really wasting space on the Interwebs by going further but screw it. I wasted time seeing this so I might as well make the most of it.

I might as well start with the production which is almost just as infamous as the film itself. You may think that Wayne was shoe-horned into this project by some ironclad contract. That he is not at fault because he had a legal gun to his head. Oh no. Wayne used his considerable influence to get the movie made. Director Powell stated he was perfectly willing to throw the script in the trash but gave in due to Wayne’s urgings (IMDb). That’s not why this film is infamous though. The reason this film is such a debacle is the decision to film this movie downwind of the Yucca Flats nuclear testing site. To make matters worse, Howard Hughes transported tons of the nuclear dust to Hollywood for interior set design. A few years after filming several of the crew of this movie, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorhead, John Hoyt, and Dick Powell, got cancer. Now, it has been argued that maybe all the cancer cases can’t be attributed to the filming (Wayne and Hayward were heavy smokers after all). But when about 40% of your crew gets cancer years after filming this movie, you can see a certain correlation. Howard Hughes paid $12 million for all the prints and did not allow it to be seen on television for 17 years (IMDb). That’s right. The man who stored urine in jars and walked around with Kleenex boxes on his feet felt guilty about this.

So now we come to actually discussing the movie and frankly I don’t know what to say. Well I guess I will put it off a bit longer so I can address the elephant in the room. John Wayne is freaking Genghis Khan! I mean, okay, I’ve never been someone that is super hung up on casting. I can understand there are limitations on who you can pick with a given production and Hollywood does have a hang up with name recognition. Plus occasionally you do get performances like Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (yes, I know Kingsley is half Indian but that doesn’t change the fact there still had to be a lot of work to make him look like Gandhi). But this performance really takes the cake. This is Wayne channeling every Wayne character stereo type into his role of a MONGOL warlord. Hell, even the poster writes out Wayne’s broken speech pattern “I am Temujin…Barbarian…I fight! I love! I conquer…like a Barbarian!” You expect “…Pilgrim” slapped on the end of that quote. In fact, I expect “pilgrim” at the end of all his line reads. Read some of this script in your best/worst John Wayne impression and that is how bad this is.

Ugh, now onto the rest of the movie. There’s a reason why I haven’t really mentioned anything else. It’s because there isn’t a whole lot else to mention. For being a DeMille type epic, there isn’t a whole lot of plot. So the story is about Temujin (Wayne) who is trying to unite the clans and get revenge against the Tartars (who killed his father). Meanwhile, he falls for a Tartar woman (Hayward) who despises him and there is a subplot about his brother who may or may not be betraying him. That sounds like there should be a lot going on, but there really isn’t. The “love story” is the main plot of this movie and it is pretty laughable. Temujin is an asshole who spends many scenes trying to rape Hayward’s character (yes I know, he loves…LIKE A BARBARIAN!). Hayward’s character is a bitch, but wouldn’t you be if John Wayne in a cheesy Fu Manchu-ish mustache tried to rape you constantly? Then for some reason in the second act, Hayword falls madly in love with Temujin. This is one of the most unbelievable romances in movie history. Why do these people love each other? Why do they even stand one another? When the main narrative of your movie is hopelessly crippled, what hope does the rest of your movie have? Temujin really isn’t a fully developed character either. I don’t understand why he is considered such a military genius or how he united the tribes or why people really follow him. To me he seems like a hot headed, reckless oaf. He seems barely qualified to finish a plate of nachos let alone finish off the Tartars. I really don’t remember what else happens in this movie and I just saw it. Temujin gets betrayed but he escapes and stuff happens and he builds an army (somehow) and lots of boring fighting and blah blah blah good guys win.

I’m kind of torn on this movie. I did love watching John Wayne as he struggled in this highly embarrassing role. And like I said, if you are a film masochist, then you have already made up your mind. But the rest of this movie really didn’t do anything for me. The movie is bad, but outside of Wayne, it is just bland. Much of the time it felt like the narrative was spinning its wheels and it was rather boring. This is a funny bad movie, but not bad enough to make it a true classic.

 

 

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