Directed by Dick Powell
February 2, 1956 (London) / February 22, 1956 (Los Angeles) / March 28, 1956 (US)
Mongol chief Temujin falls for the beautiful Bortai and fights to win her.
The Conqueror is considered one of the worst movies of all time as well as being the most miscast film of all time. That is a bad twofer there. I would not quite put it as the worst film of all time but definitely one of the most miscast. I am pretty sure none of the characters depicted in the film were Caucasian or had piercing blue eyes. The cast is a good one but none of them should be playing Asians. If this film were not about Genghis Khan and instead some adventure film set in a fictitious land its legacy would be much different.
It was not unusual for ages in Hollywood to cast white actors in non-white roles. I would say even up into the 70s there were Caucasians playing Native Americans in Westerns for example. For whatever reason (racism way more often than not) the lead minority character was played by a white individual. Sometimes the actors crafted a respectable character. Sometimes they wallowed in racial stereotypes that make you cringe. I dare say most of the cast tried to be respectful. I may get some flak for that, but the majority treated their parts with respect.
That is all but John Hoyt. He was probably the worst of the bunch. He just went for caricature in his part as Shaman who is an advisor to Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez). Hoyt squinted and put on a stereotypical accent when NOBODY else in the movie squinted or used an accent. The man was a better actor than this. This was bottom of the barrel bad. You could not get much worse than he was here.
John Wayne is Genghis Khan, referred throughout the film as Temujin. That is probably a smart move because calling John Wayne “Genghis Khan” throughout the movie would have been just as bad as casting him.
When it comes to his performance, this film is another case of a director allowing John Wayne to skate on his star power rather than pulling a John Ford or Henry Hathaway and forcing him to act. The man could give good performances when challenged but here director Dick Powell clearly did not challenge him.
Another major issue with this film is the dialogue. Not so much how it is written but how it is delivered. The flowery language that the actors often use does not come naturally to them. Generally, I do not think any of these actors regularly appeared in films with this type of dialogue and they did not seem to quite know how to deliver it effectively. It came off as stilted at times and clunky at others. They wanted this to be Shakespeare, but it most definitely was not.
The Conqueror comes off more as a Western adventure film than a historical epic. Put a cowboy hat on some of the actors and add one cattle herd and a “Yeehaw!” and this story would fit in pretty nicely. And that is why I said this would be better as an adventure film set in a fictitious land. Heck, the story is a complete work of fiction so why not just go a step further? As I said before, this movie would be much more kindly looked upon if that had been done.
If you can somewhat divorce yourself from this being a work of historical fiction about Genghis Khan, you will find a very good story with plenty of exciting action sequences and entertaining characters. The cast is a great cast. Aside from Wayne, we have Susan Hayward as the object of Temujin’s lust Bortai, Agnes Moorehead (yes, THAT Agnes Moorehead) as the seductive dancer Hunlun, regular Wayne costar Pedro Armendáriz as the loyal Jamuga, William Conrad as Kasar, and Lee Van Cleef as Chepei. And what is a John Wayne film without his kids popping in somewhere? Michael Wayne has an uncredited part as a Mongol guard and Patrick Wayne has an uncredited part as an unnamed character. Both are hard to miss because they look so much like their dad. There is a scene where Michael’s character has captured Jamuga and I could practically hear Armendáriz say “I’m telling your dad!”
I think the story is great despite the casting issues. There is double dealing and intricate planning set amongst great sets and beautiful vistas. The storyline is rather complex even if the focus is on Temujin getting some booty. This is a well-done adventure yarn from when such things were done and done well.
A great deal has been made of the cancer deaths among the cast and crew of this film. The exterior shots of this film were done near St. George, Utah, which is 137 miles downwind of the United States government’s Nevada National Security Site and it took the brunt of nuclear fallout from testing at the time. Reportedly though the stats among those involved in the film line up roughly with the general population. Producer Howard Hughes felt guilty over his decisions regarding production and bought every print for $12 million and it was kept out of circulation until Universal bought it from his estate in 1979.
While The Conqueror certainly has its issues as a story and most certainly has issues in casting, it is not as terrible as they would have you believe. So long as you can kind of divorce yourself from the reality that this is about Genghis Khan you will enjoy The Conquer. I say watch it.