Written by Oscar Millard
Directed by Dick Powell
How bad a film is Howard Hughes notorious disaster, well it only managed to kill John Wayne is all. No not Wayne’s career, Wayne himself. The film was shot on location near St. George, Utah (obviously for its uncanny resemblance to that of northeast Asia), 137 miles from above-ground nuclear weapons testing. The filmmakers knew about the testing but were assured by the federal government that they caused no hazard. 91 out of the 220 cast and crew were diagnosed with some form of cancer within 15 years of filming and the death toll included the film’s director Dick Powell as well as the leads Pedro Armendáriz, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and of course The Duke himself. Producer Hughes so regretted his decision to film near a hazard site that he bought every copy of the film for $12 million and locked them away with himself during his final “crazy” years (allegedly watching them continuously). Satirically referred to as “An RKO Radioactive Picture” the film was such a financial disappointment that it lead to the demise of the famed studio, which in turn made it just another victim of The Conqueror.
While many have sighted Wayne’s portrayal of Genghis Khan as “the worst casting decision in Hollywood history”, the truth is that the picture exists entirely due to Wayne’s initial passion for it. Originally written with Marlon Brando in mind the screenplay for the film was initially never going to see the light of day. Allegedly Dick Powell and John Wayne met one day in Powell’s office to go over several scripts. When Powell was called away momentarily he returned to find Wayne hungrily flipping through the pages of The Conqueror, a screenplay Powell had meant to put in the disposal bin. Powell attempted to talk Wayne out of it but, so in love with the script was Wayne, he was unable to do so famously stating “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”
Even the most diehard of John Wayne fans will admit that Wayne essentially plays the same character in each of his films. Astoundingly The Conqueror is no different. Anyone expecting Wayne to even attempt an accent or simply not play Ethan Edwards in a ridiculous costume and mustache will be in for a surprise. This is inadvertently the films greatest entertainment value as an entire cast at least attempt to give an illusion of a Mongolian caravan except for the two white leads just speaking and acting as if they were comfortably on the prairie in any John Ford film. I say attempting an illusion because much of the cast consisted of local Navajo Indians without make-up, I guess if you place a curvy mustache on a Native American their resemblance to Mongolians is uncanny.
As if throwing some leftover animals skins from a mountain man movie and a fake mustache onto John Wayne and calling him Genghis Khan isn’t comical enough, The Conqueror’s screenplay is crisp with such dimwitted romanticized dialog it comes off as an unholy cross between the works of George Lucas and William Shakespeare. The film focuses less on the conquest of Asia that Temujin (later called Genghis Khan) embarked upon and more on his fascination with, and courtship of recently captured daughter of the rival Tartar leader Bortai (played by red-haired Susan Hayward). This helps to make The Conqueror one of the most misguided post-romantic pieces ever created. In one of the more memorable scenes of the film Temujin explains to Bortai that he is to take ownership of her possessions to which she grabs a sword and tries to stab him when his back is turned. Avoiding her thrust Temujin scoops her in his arms and lovingly looks down upon her and says “You’re beautiful in your wrath.” Now that line is simply marvelous all by itself but in the context of the scene it’s bad movie magic. Another scene that really strikes a chord is during an exotic dance number where Temujin tries to antagonize Bortai with such remarkable lines as “Does not their skill excite your admiration or even envy?” and “Forgive her oh Khan but lacking the talents of these woman the sight of them is irksome to her.” So gleefully delighted I was with Wayne spouting off such misguided lines that I could ramble on about them for days until he demanded “Uncurl your silver tongue, and speak straight!”
With all the big words and fancy talk in the script Wayne must have thought he was reading a post-romantic masterpiece but instead was reading one of the most unintentionally comical pieces that would ever get the Hollywood green light. Realizing his folly Wayne acknowledged to “making an ass of himself” in the production and forever gave a physical shiver anytime The Conqueror was mentioned in his presence. For bad movie fans we can only stand up and applaud this surreal melodrama, exclaim how beautiful Wayne is in his wrath and demand an encore with Clint Eastwood as Shaka Zulu.
Come on! You can see it.