The Conqueror

The Conqueror. RKO Radio Pictures 1956.

Before watching the movie:

This movie was probably forgotten for a while except as a strange footnote in John Wayne’s career. However, it’s been seized on due to the fact that it was filmed downwind from nuclear bomb testing, which leads more and more people to discover the bafflingly bad idea of casting Hollywood’s most famous Cowboy to lead in an epic on the origins of Genghis Khan.

On paper, it sounds bad, but hardly any movie deserves to have this much ridicule heaped on it. Most of the people mocking it haven’t even seen it. One thing I like to do with this blog is give movies a chance at the minor redemption of pleasantly surprising one hobbyist critic on the internet, so this was an irresistible pick.

After watching the movie:

On the Asian plains, Temujin, chief of one small tribe of Mongols, happens upon a procession of the Merkit chief Targutai, a celebration of his taking of his third wife, Bortai, daughter of the Tartar chief Kumlek, who killed Temujin’s father Yessugai. Temujin, deciding that Bortai should be his, returns with his men to raid Targutai and steal Bortai for his own bride, despite Bortai’s distain for him and all Mongols. Word reaches Kumlek of what happened, and the Tartars raid Temujin’s camp, liberating Bortai. In the skirmish, the Mongols are scattered and Temujin is injured worse than his blood brother and trusted lieutenant Jamuga can treat without supplies. Jamuga goes to the Tartar camp claiming to seek to betray Temujin and serve Kumlek, but when he returns to Temujin’s hiding place, the men Kumlek sent to follow him find the cave and while they capture Temujin, Jamuga escapes. Seeing how her father treats Temujin as a prisoner, Bortai’s heart softens, and she helps him escape, though Temujin leaves believing that Jamuga betrayed him, and rejoining his tribe, goes to the high chief of all Mongols for aid in his revenge on Kumlek and on Jamuga.

I was sure that John Wayne, being an actor, would do something different from how he plays cowboys and all-American tough guys, that that was an act he put on for those roles. I was incredibly, ridiculously, absurdly wrong. Not only does he not act like anything other than John Wayne when playing a Mongol chief, the stilted dialogue of this movie that sits next to works like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur in no way fits in Wayne’s mouth. It’s impossible to take his scenes seriously, because everyone else is trying hard to create this fake-Shakespeare heightened reality and then the star of the show is a simple cowhand wearing a Fu Manchu and maybe some yellow foundation. It is impossible to discuss this movie without being clear that however bad a casting choice Wayne sounds like in the abstract, the effect is even worse.

Trying to assess the movie around that, I think the production would have seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. Temujin is a clear power fantasy and the movies liked hot-blooded alpha men at the time (hence why John Wayne had a career). I don’t really understand why Bortai falls in love with Temujin through all his brutishness other than because she’s drawn to his animal magnetism, but that was a logic that used to make sense. However, it may be a bridge too far even in the day for the soundtrack to play a syrupy love melody when he first sees her, given that she’s spitting poison and contempt at all Mongols in general and Temujin in particular. If Wayne’s performance doesn’t elicit unintended laughter, I think that will.

Time has of course not been kind to the film. One can obviously begin with the fact that the cast of this story set in central Asia is all white actors and Latinos, and it revels in the brutality and exoticism of the setting. I don’t think a movie could be made today where the meet cute of the love story saw the protagonist attacking a wedding procession, surrounding the couple with his men, telling the groom to be grateful he was allowed to escape with his life, and tearing the bride’s dress off. There is nothing sympathetic about our supposed hero in the first half of the movie, but fortunately the story eventually moves from the “love story” to scheming and revenge between tribes. While this was more interesting, I had a bit of trouble keeping up with all the subterfuge and shifting alliances.

I think the most unfortunate part of this movie’s legacy is that the controversy around whether or not the filming location was a lethal mistake is keeping it alive. At its core, it’s a middling attempt at a high budget epic, but it falls down so hard in the execution and carries so much social baggage that it should have been allowed to fade out quietly. Instead, it lives forever as one of the most infamous wastes of money in cinema history.


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