The Conqueror

Genghis Khan is certainly one of the great figures in the history of the world. When you say “Mongolia,” he’s the first person of whom you’re likely to think. He conquered China, swept westward, and eventually had a chain of shopping mall formal wear rental stores named after him. Were it not for Genghis Khan’s contributions to society, I would have been at a loss as to wear to rent my tux for the prom back in 1990. But aside from all that, he was one of the world’s great conquerors, and whether he was a hero or a villain depends largely on whether or not he conquered in your name or just plain conquered you. Certainly as with all history’s epic conquerors — Ramses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Vlad Tepes, and Bono from U2 — Genghis Khan is a person who lends himself to having a sweeping, vast, and complex movie made about his life and influence. And like most of the conquerors throughout history, he’s still waiting for that movie to be made.

Not that there haven’t been movies made about him. It’s just that…well, let me put it this way. When you think, “leader of the Mongol hordes?” who’s the first actor that comes to mind? Because if it isn’t John Wayne, then you’re not thinking like Howard Hughes, and since he’s the one who made the Genghis Khan movie, that’s who he cast.

John Wayne? Really, it doesn’t seem quite so silly after you’ve seen Susan Hayward cast as a pale-skinned, red-haired Tartar princess. And since the casting director himself was obviously aware of how ludicrous this was, they even throw in a line to the effect of, “I know. A red-haired Tartar princess? Can you believe it?” Well, no, not really. But honestly, if casting Caucasians — especially extremely famous and recognizable Caucasians like Wayne and Hayward — is a film’s most grievous misstep, then I can forgive it. There are plenty of “fake Asian” movies I enjoy despite the loopy casting. Peter Lorre as the mysterious Mr. Moto, Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong, and Warner Oland as Charlie Chan — despite the fact that these were all Caucasian leads in Asian roles, the movies were still often quite enjoyable, and the overall racial tone was generally Asian-positive, if delivered in something of a misguided, still very racist way. At least they were the heroes. Charlie Chan spent almost his entire run of movies being goofily lovable and exposing insidious whities as the evil masterminds behind the various nefarious plots he foiled.

So although the famously awkward casting of John Wayne as the legendary Mongolian warlord is the most obvious foible The Conqueror makes (and let’s not forget his Mongolian henchman, Lee Van Cleef, or William “Jake and the Fat man” Conrad), there is so much hilariously bad stuff about this disaster of an epic that you’ll hardly even notice that the leads aren’t Asian. From the promise of epic battles that never materialize to the wretched dialogue to the delivery of said dialogue, The Conqueror really takes every level of filmmaking to a level of badness that quite possibly attains the sublime.

We first meet Genghis Khan when is but the lowly Temujin, looking to cause trouble with a fragile peace between warring Mongolian tribes by kidnapping the princess Bortai (Hayward). The film is on thin ice the moment Wayne starts spitting out the ridiculously stilted (even for an epic from the 1950s) dialogue in his classic John Wayne acting style. His Duke Manchu performance here demands to be placed on a pedestal right alongside William Shatner, Adam West, or Jack Palance at their most histrionic. Wayne was never what you would call a great actor, but like many men who weren’t great at their chosen craft, he found a highly stylized way of delivering lines that worked well in certain settings and circumstances. Watch Wayne in a movie like The Searcher or True Grit or a host of other films, and you’ll see that with the right material, his style can be very effective. Saddled with ham-fisted dialogue that sounds like a teenager trying to write in the style of a bloated 1950s epic, however, and Wayne seems like just about the worst thing to ever happen to movies. “I feel this Tartar woman…is for me…and my blood says…take her. There are…moments for wisdom…and moments…when I listen to…my blood; my blood says…take…this Tartar woman!” Wayne stammers in one of the ripest lines.

Wayne himself apparently loved the script, and producer Howard Hughes could imagine no one else in the world who would be better suited to inhabit the furry hat and armor of the Mongolian conqueror. “The Conqueror is a Western in some ways,” John Wayne unsuccessfully argued. “The way the screenplay reads, it is a cowboy picture and that is how I am going to play Genghis Khan. I see him as a gunfighter.” Which is why Wayne plays the Mongolian with his usual bowlegged swagger and Western movie drawl. I suppose, in reflection, things could have been a lot worse. It could have been an epic movie about ancient Troy or Alexander the Great where a bunch of American actors inexplicably fake British accents. Listening to Brad Pitt “British-up” his Greek character Achilles in Troy makes me miss the days when John Wayne played Genghis with all the sauntering “Well, hey, pilgrim” nonchalance for which he was known.

Which is good, because besides John Wayne’s wretched (he manages to be wooden and hammy at the same time, which is a state few actors can attain) reading of his lines, The Conqueror disappoints on all other levels. As one of the very first films made in CinemaScope — that’s widescreen, to you and me — one expects it to be a lavish, opulent blowout on the grand scale of other CinemaScope pioneers like The Robe and The Egyptian. This was the dawn of the era of massive Hollywood epics, the grandeur and excess of which have to this day never been rivaled even in this age of CGI. These movies were huge. Everything about them seems to dwarf the common member of the audience, from the sets to the acting to the costumes. These movies were self-indulgent and bloated, but you can’t deny that you pretty much see every single penny on the screen. This all came about as a result of the rise of television. Movies had to give audiences something they couldn’t get on TV, and that meant exotic, TechniColor, CinemaScope blow-outs. the Conqueror is supposed to be one of these, but held up against contemporaries like the aforementioned The Robe, this tale of the young Khan’s rise to power plays like a cut-rate wannabe that lacks even the cheap exotic opulence of some of the lesser peplum films of the 1960s.

The blame for this seems to fall almost squarely on the shoulders of actor-turned director Dick Powell, who fails to capture any of the magnificence such a film demands. Powell was best known as a TV actor, and it’s probably his experience with television production that lead to The Conqueror seeming like such a small-time affair. It was only Powell’s second job as a director (he would only have three more, before dying in 1963), and there’s absolutely nothing in his filmography to suggest that he had any idea how to film an epic. Making matters worse, the film had four cinematographers, none of whom were able to capture the grand scale the film needed. On the one hand, the fact that this was one of the first CinemaScope widescreen movies meant that you couldn’t really expect the guys (Joseph LaShelle, William E. Snyder, Leo Tover, and Harry Wild) to have experience photographing a widescreen movie. On the other hand, they should have spent a lot more time studying silent era epics and the Cecil DeMille films from the 1930s. They managed to look more sweeping and vast than The Conqueror despite their lack of widescreen, color, and in many cases, sound. At the very least, they should have closely studied Leon Shamroy’s work in 1953’s The Robe to see what the new widescreen format was capable of delivering.

On the other hand, they may have shot tons of sweeping vistas and realized that it was easier to pass off the limited number of cast members as a horde if they just stuck with medium shots. As such, despite the fact that The Conqueror was shot widescreen, there’s not much point to the format. Its ambition falls far short of its execution, and like director Dick Powell, the cinematographers ultimately turn in a film that feels like it was made for television despite the wide scope.

Made at an expense of $8 million — no small sum in 1956 — the Conqueror plays like a high school adaptation of an epic. Nothing ever clicks. Massive battles are promised, but they never materialize. In wide shots (the bread and butter of early CinemaScope films) you can see that the cast of thousands is really a cast of about forty or fifty. The rugged Utah exteriors are never photographed in a way that captures their grandeur as John Ford would with the same lead actor in countless other films. And as a stand-in for Mongolia, the deserts of Utah are a pretty questionable choice anyway. But then, I figure in 1956, the look of Mongolia was still pretty foreign to most Americans, so no one was really going to nitpick the red rock and dirt standing in for grasslands and the Gobi Desert.

When the action shifts indoors, and fans of epics expect huge sets draped in every piece of glittering finery the art department could stitch together, the film still fails to conjure that epic feel. Through the whole thing, all I could do (besides laugh myself silly at Wayne’s acting) was think to myself, “They spent $8 million on this?” even the costumes look cheap and goofy. While other epics were putting a huge amount of effort into the perception (if not the reality) of realism, trying to create something that looked authentic even if it wasn’t (the representation, rather than presentation, of history), everyone in The Conqueror rambles about in costumes that look like something a kid throws together the day before Halloween. I’m pretty sure Wayne’s Genghis Khan outfit was assembled by the costume designer out of whatever was left over at the catering table. A metal bowl, a couple forks, and a tablecloth do not transform The Duke into a mighty 12th century Mongol warlord.

In place of world conquest, or even very much Mongolian conquest, the movie spends most of its time on the “I hate you I love you” relationship between the tempestuous Tartar princess and her would-be conqueror. Once again, a crummy script is saved by the mind-blowing acting that takes place between Hayward and Wayne. You guys know I much prefer to compliment a movie that fall back on, “So bad it’s good,” but if ever there was a movie besides Zombie 3 that fit the “so bad it’s good” bill to a T, this is it. Words can scarcely describe it, and suddenly, whatever apprehensions you may have had about Hayward and John Wayne being cast as Mongolians are dismissed. Given the poor script, the lack of action, the threadbare attempts at epic sumptuousness, the remarkable miscasting and hammy acting of John Wayne suddenly looks like the film’s one stroke of pure genius. It’s the only thing that makes the movie tolerable.

Well, not the only thing. There are dancing girls, and some of the supporting cast — though no more Mongolian than John Wayne — are actually pretty good. Pedro Armendariz, beloved as Turkish secret agent Karim Bey from From Russia with Love, puts in a wonderful performance as Temujin’s blood brother, Jamuga. He seems to be one of the only members of the cast that understands how to act in an epic. Epics demand that you ham it up a little and take things over the top. Witness Richard Burton in the previous year’s The Robe. Charlton Heston had yet to come along and show everyone definitively, “THIS is how you act in an epic!” but Burton’s performance was certainly not lacking in its lack of subtlety. It worked perfectly for the material and the colossal scale of the film. Wayne overacts, but not quite in the correct way. Armendariz nails it, but then, that’s what he does with pretty much each of his characters. Lee Van Cleef doesn’t really do much other than hang out by the campfire, but his presence is always welcome. And William Conrad is all right. The rest of the cast, however, seems determined to give John Wayne a run for his money in the stilted delivery department.

Yet again, we find that the screenwriter — Oscar Millard — is, like the director and the cinematographers, far more experienced with television than movie making. For all his billions, you’d think Hughes could have hired a core film crew with more cinema than television experience. Had he done that, it’s likely that The Conqueror would have looked and read a lot better than it does.

The only thing more notorious about this movie than Wayne’s casting as Genghis Khan is the fact that it was shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which in 1956 was the very recent site of atomic bomb testing. Exactly why producer Howard Hughes was so determined to use this location is something I don’t know — but then remember the guy did eventually start wearing Kleenex boxes on his feet. It was disastrous. Some ninety members of the cast and crew — including Hayward, Armendariz, Agnes Moorehead (who plays John Wayne’s mother and is best known as the meddlesome mother from television’s Bewitched), director Dick Powell, and John Wayne himself — died of cancer. High radiation levels at the locations for this film are one of the leading suspects, and with ninety people involved in this movie dying of cancer, it’s hard to argue against the hypothesis. It’s a damn goofy movie to have given your life for, even if you didn’t know you were doing it at the time.

Producer and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes didn’t get cancer, but he did go batshit insane not too long after this movie. The $8 million he spent producing the film pales in comparison to the reported $12 million he spent to buy up all the prints and take it off the market. It was the last film he would ever make. Although the movie was soundly panned by pretty much everyone, the spectacle of widescreen and bright colors and the mighty Mongol Horde of a couple dozen guys was enough to snare curious viewers, especially on the global market (though Wayne’s plan to either repair or destroy relations with the USSR by premiering the movie there was given the “nyet thanks” by the Russians once they previewed the movie), and The Conqueror managed to turn a profit for Hughes’ dying RKO Pictures. Hughes himself apparently loved the movie as much as I do (and make no mistake — I love this movie), even arranging frequent screenings of it at his estate.

Eventually, I guess that cost him his friends, so he became increasingly protective of the movie and would only watch it by himself, reportedly while in the nude — though given his maniacal dedication to reclusiveness at this point, I’m not sure how anyone knew what he was or was not wearing while watching the movie. I know I watched it in the nude, so I could get a better feel for Howard Hughes’ thought process, and I am a better man for it. Thus began his $12 million campaign to remove it entirely from the global marketplace. Anyone who sat in on one of these screenings probably should have recognized his adoration of the Conqueror as Hughes’ mental tipping point.

In 1974, Paramount Pictures secured the rights to the movie, and John Wayne and his mighty Mongol hordes could once again be unleashed upon the world. What the world discovered, or rediscovered, is that the movie is sort of cheap looking and kind of dull. It never delivers the majesty or thrills that people expected from an epic. It preoccupies itself with a chemistry-free but laugh-filled romance, and then it ends right as Temujin becomes Khan and starts thinking about conquering the world. In an era of mammoth sets, casts of thousands, and spectacles the likes of which no one had ever witnessed onscreen before (!), The Conqueror just looks sort of half-assed. The fact that American icon John Wayne was cast as Genghis Khan, while initially the main thing that turns this film into a laughing stock, ends up being the only thing that really makes it tolerable, and luckily, Wayne’s turn as the Khan is so awful that it makes it pretty easy to coast through the movie.