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CONQUEROR, THE (director: Dick Powell; screenwriters: from the book by J. Clou /Oscar Millard; cinematographers: Joseph LaShelle/William E. Snyder/Leo Tover/Harry J. Wild; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Victor Young; cast: John Wayne (Temujin, later Genghis Khan), Susan Hayward (Bortai), Pedro Armendáriz (Jamuga), Thomas Gomez (Wang Khan), Agnes Moorehead (Hunlun), John Hoyt (Shaman), William Conrad (Kasar), Ted de Corsia (Kumlek), Leslie Bradley (Targutai), Lee Van Cleef (Chepei); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Dick Powell/Howard Hughes; GoodTimes Video; 1956)
“No one comes out of this train wreck holding their head up.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of the dullest action pics ever. A miscast John Wayne is cast as Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, but makes for one of the most unlikely looking and sounding easterners. The big-budget ($6 million) epic historical film is an artistic embarrassment and also a box office flop. Not only is the directing terrible, the acting by everyone wooden, and the dialogue stilted, but it’s overlong and difficult to watch without either laughing at in derision or tuning it out. No one comes out of this train wreck holding their head up. It’s a bad film that’s really that bad. It tells about the early days of the 12th-century Genghis Khan; it’s played as a solemn CinemaScope costume pic, but Wayne can’t help playing the eastern warrior as a gunfighting cowboy which is not the way to play his character. This ruins any attempt to make it even semi-plausible, aside from the fact that its history is so loosely interpreted that it’s rendered meaningless. Wayne is forced to say lines such as this one to Hayward: “You’re beautiful in your wrath.”

Billionaire producer Howard Hughes insisted on shooting in Utah’s Escalante Desert. The desert area had been used for atom bomb tests. Coincidentally all the following died from cancer in due time: Dick Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayworth, Pedro Armendáriz, and Agnes Moorehead. Supposedly of the 220 people who worked on the film, more than 90 later came down with cancer. Which makes you scratch your head and look back in wonder why the effort for such a lousy film. Hughes must have remembered this about the ill effects of radiation, because in his recluse days in Las Vegas he did all he could to stop atom bomb testing in Nevada. According to the book Citizen Hughes by Michael Drosnin, Hughes bribed Nixon to eventually move the tests to Alaska. Hughes after selling RKO bought back the rights to both The Conqueror and the slightly better Jet Pilot for $12 million, and didn’t allow any prints to reach the public. During his recluse days, the mentally unbalanced Hughes watched these films in the nude over and over again. I think if I was forced to watch The Conqueror for an extended period of time, I too would begin to lose whatever marbles I had and throw away my clothes.

The plot has Temujin (John Wayne), a ferocious Mongol warrior, abduct the beautiful Tartar princess Bortai (Susan Hayward), who might be the only Tartar redhead in history, from her soon-to-husband Targutai. In captivity the treacherous Bortai, whose father defeated Temujin’s father in battle, schemes to get Temujin into mistrusting his blood brother Jamuga (Pedro Armendáriz). Later she falls in love with the stud warrior and all becomes square again.

Temujin’s mother Hunlun is played by Agnes Moorehead while Thomas Gomez plays Wang Khan, whose emperor title Temujin will inherit after vanquishing his enemies in the Gobi Desert.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”