Film Torments: The Conqueror (1956)

CAST yourself back about 60 years to 1956. It’s a time when the Berlin Wall was but a twinkle in the East German eye; when the Golden Age of Hollywood was limping to a hammy curtain call; when the Cold War neared its terrifying peak. Howard Hughes, a crazy person, decides to broker an epic chronicling the life of Temujin, a crazy person more widely known as Genghis Khan.

John Wayne, a crazy person, then at the height of his career after making The Searchers in the same year, lobbied furiously to receive the title role, supposedly written for Marlon Brando. Wayne got what he wanted. The result – OBVIOUSLY – is one of the most grievous miscastings in Hollywood history and widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made, and we haven’t even talked about the cancer yet.

That’s right – cancer. The Conqueror was filmed in Utah – truly the most Mongolian of locations – downwind from a nuclear test site. On top of that, Hughes shipped tons of radioactive dirt to confined studio spaces for reshoots. This is a film so bad it literally killed its crew; Wayne, co-star Susan Hayward, director Dick Powell and 43 other members of the cast and crew had all died of cancer by 1981; 91 in total had developed some form of the disease.

"You seen a saloon bar around here, lady?"

“You seen a saloon bar around here, lady?”

But is The Conqueror really as awful as its cancerous reputation would suggest? Yes. Absolutely yes. It’s bloody terrible. Do I need to hammer this home? John Wayne is not Genghis Khan, nor will he ever be. Not a scene goes by where we aren’t laughing our arses off at the lazy cowboy drawl rolling out of Temujin’s lips. Wayne still seems to be labouring under the impression he’s in a John Ford picture, awkwardly striding into yurts and ‘Tartar’ palaces like they’re saloons.

Oscar Millard’s script is lofty florid nonsense, with lines like “my blood says, take her” and “know this woman; I take you for wife”, and pseudo-Shakespearean flourishes that would be laughed off the stage of a Nativity. Everyone greets and then repeatedly refers to each other in the same conversation as “my mother” or “my wife” or “Cha moo guh [Jamuga], my brother”. The direction is blatantly moulded after a Western because it is a Western, albeit a thinly-veiled one; the battle scenes in particular allude to this thematic origin, where the Tartar might as well have Native American headdresses on.

The romantic theme music kicks in when Temujin is forcefully abducting Bortai (Susan Hayward). Twice. There’s a lengthy dance sequence featuring pink feather boas and string bikini-things that looks like it was ripped straight out of Blazing Saddles. The film’s problems are so legion and overwhelming that I’m actually having trouble condensing them all into single paragraphs, so what does the plot do? Moreover, what does the film do right?

"Now I will show you the Dance of the Three Snakes!"

“Now I will show you the Dance of the Three Snakes!”

Nothing really.  The film addresses the rise of Temujin before he became Khan and then he becomes Khan. That’s about it. There’s a brief spurt of mystery when Bortai gets re-abducted by her Tartar people and Temujin tries to figure out who betrayed him (no prizes for guessing). Bortai also inexplicably develops Stockholm syndrome and proclaims her love for Temujin mere minutes after denouncing his name to the high heavens and leaving him to die. The film is about as progressive in its sexual politics as you would expect from a film from the 50s but, really, when you have John Wayne playing Mongol warlord Genghis Khan the film may as well have come from the Stone Age.

More progressive still is the fundamental absurdity that not a single Asian actor features – even as a bit-part – in a film entirely about Asians. Wayne and his cohorts get the slanty-eye make-up slapped on; Wayne in particular sports a hilarious Fu Man Chu moustache that looks about as authentic as Utah’s Gobi Desert. The costumes are garish eyesores that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Dschingis Khan.

Moral of the story: "Don't make an ass of yourself playing roles you aren't suited for." - John Wayne

Moral of the story: “Don’t make an ass of yourself playing roles you aren’t suited for.” – John Wayne

Quite why Wayne campaigned so vigorously for this role after reading the script is beyond me; looking at his face delivering corkers like “for good or ill, she is my destiny”, horror pooling behind his vacant eyes, we feel only confusion and hilarity rising in our blood. These, it turns out, are the chief emotions elicited from watching The Conqueror. It made Howard Hughes so guilty that he bought up every extant copy of the film and, legendarily, watched it and Ice Station Zebra endlessly in his bunker as a form of penance.

It’s simultaneously difficult and easy to believe The Conqueror was made. On paper, the whole thing seems monstrously bloated and beyond absurd. On film, it turns out, the whole thing is monstrously bloated and beyond absurd; and yet, even with the awful performances, the clunking script and the pedestrian direction, John Wayne still exudes a weird charisma.

Even though every single line sounds wrong, even though every intonation he makes is jarring, even though every facial expression and gesture is laughably off-kilter, Wayne still commands every scene he’s in. Though undoubtedly it’s one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen it’s also, strangely, one of the most magnetic. As Dick Powell himself famously said: “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?” Thank God he didn’t.

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