22 February 2020

The Conqueror: I am positive this can be a very important, powerful picture

The Conqueror (1956) was John Wayne's final picture for RKO as part of a three-picture deal Wayne had signed with the studio. Directed by Dick Powell, it tells the story of Mongol leader Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan) who falls for Tartar princess Bortai and abducts her, causing a war between the Mongols and the Tartars. The film is generally regarded as one of the worst films of all time and also contains one of the worst miscastings in film history.

John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan, which is as bad and ridiculous as it sounds. Apart from looking utterly silly with his black wig and Fu Manchu moustache, Wayne plays the Asian warlord with his characteristic drawl as if Khan were an American cowboy. The stilted dialogue written by Oscar Millard doesn't help Wayne's performance (or anyone else's in the cast) either. Wayne delivers lines like "I feel this Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her" and "I shall keep you
, Bortai. I shall keep you unresponding to my passion. Your hatred will kindle into love... ", while Susan Hayward, who is also wasted in her role as the Tartar princess, says things like: "Before that day dawns, Mongol, the vultures will feast on your heart!" It's all very laughable and makes you wonder why Wayne and Hayward, both at the height of their careers, had agreed to do the film at all.

John Wayne as Temujin "Genghis Khan" (below pictured with Susan Hayward) -- what was he thinking?!
I'm not sure about Hayward but Wayne, believe it or not, had really wanted to make The Conqueror. Having waited a long time for a suitable project to complete his three-picture contract with RKO, Wayne was immediately enthusiastic about The Conqueror after Dick Powell had asked him to read the scriptIn a letter to Howard Hughes written in April 1954 -- at the time Hughes was head of RKO -- Wayne shows his excitement about the script while being less enthused about other projects suggested to him, like The Silver Horde (meant as a sequel to The Spoilers (1942)) and The Long Wire which was also to be directed by Powell (both projects were abandoned).

Seen below is a small excerpt from Wayne's 4-page letter to Hughes, i.e. the part that deals with The Conqueror, in which Wayne says he has a good feeling about the project, comparing it to other films he did such as Stagecoach (1939) and The Quiet Man (1952). Wayne would later admit the film was a big mistake and regretted playing Genghis Khan for the rest of his life. He reportedly said that the moral of the film was "not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for."
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Now I come to the pleasant part. Last week Dick Powell asked me to read a script called "The Conqueror". As I read it I kept telephoning Dick of my honest enthusiasm. If my quarter of a century of experience in this business means anything, I am positive this can be a very important, powerful picture. This is the first script (and it is only a first draft) I have read from your studio that really excites me. I have the honest feelings for this that I had when I approached pictures like "Stagecoach", "Red River", "The Quiet Man" and "Hondo".   
Howard Hughes
Last Thursday I telephoned Dick in the presence of my agent and urged him to contact you right away in order to convey my thoughts about "The Conqueror", and to ask you to give him the green light on it. At best we're another three months from the completion of this assignment. I'm quite sure I can convince Dick - and you, if you wish - that the cost of this picture would be no more than "The Long Wire", and the possible profits and showmanship are four to one in favor of "The Conqueror". 
(Source: Heritage Auctions)

While The Conqueror did relatively well at the box-office, it failed to earn back its $6 million investment. The film was a critical flop and, as said, is now considered one of the worst films ever made. It is listed in The Official Razzie Movie Guide as being one of 'The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made', mainly thanks to the bizarre casting of John Wayne and the unintentionally funny dialogue. To this I must add that the film is not all bad, it still has a few redeeming features, i.e. the music score by Victor Young as well as the cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, Leo Tover, Harry J. Wild and William Snyder.


A concluding note: The Conqueror is now probably best remembered for the many cancer cases among its cast and crew members, often attributed to nuclear tests that had been executed at 137 miles (220 km) from the film location (the Utah desert) in 1953. During the production of the film, the cast and crew were exposed to radioactive fallout, even though the site had been deemed safe. By 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members had some form of cancer and 46 had already died of it, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Dick Powell. While it was never proven that the nuclear fallout had indeed caused the cancer cases, Howard Hughes reportedly felt so guilty about the whole affair that he spent $12 million buying every existing copy of the film. The film was taken out of circulation and wasn't even shown on television until Universal purchased the film rights in 1979.

This post is my contribution to THE SECOND SO BAD IT'S GOOD BLOGATHON, hosted by TAKING UP ROOM. Click here, here and here for all the other entries!

Above and below: Dick Powell with his two stars. The Conqueror was the second film Powell directed following the 1953 film noir Split Second.


13 comments:

  1. This was fascinating to read and I loved the behind-the-scenes information. Honestly, my heart bestill when I read the name Dick Powell, a respected guy in Hollywood at the time so I can understand Duke's excitement at getting to work with him in what seemed like a coveted project. I have read quite a few times about the incidents of cancer that occurred amongst cast and crew. Pedro Armendáriz was another one who died indirectly from cancer; he ended his own life when the pain he suffered could no longer be beared.
    It's too bad that this film is not included in my 25-film John Wayne Collection but I will happily go out of my way to see it. Thank you for your review! :-D

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    1. Hope you'll get a chance to see this oddity in Wayne's oeuvre. Thanks for reading!

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  2. "...makes you wonder why Wayne and Hayward, both at the height of their careers, had agreed to do the film at all."

    My guess is somebody had incriminating photos of both of them :)

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  3. When I wrote my own review for this movie a few years ago I was unaware of Wayne's enthusiasm for the project. I thought he was just doing it to curry favor with Hughes to help finance his pet project of The Alamo... Of course just about everyone in the movie was miscast, since Asian American actors and actresses probably ran for the hills away from it... :-) Good review though.

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    1. You're right about practically everyone in this film being miscast. Wayne takes the cake though. Thanks!

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  4. I had never heard about the cancer cases associated with this film. That is so tragic. Very interesting article and I learned quite a bit. Thanks!

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    1. The cancer story is very tragic indeed!
      Thank you for reading!

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  5. I have only seen one John Wayne movie, but after listening to your entertaining and informative review, I may have to expand my knowledge of this act or. 👍

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    1. You should really see more of his films then. I don't know which film you saw but I would recommend The Searchers, Stagecoach, Red River, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Quiet Man (among others). And The Conqueror for its curiosity value :)
      Thanks for visiting!

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    2. I saw red River. Admittedly, I saw it because of Monty Clift, but was surprised how entertained I was by John Wayne.

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  6. Wow, what even is this movie? It sounds like Hughes was trying to go for a Wyler or DeMille angle here. Eeep. I remember hearing about the radation thing, somewhere, but I forgot it was this movie where it happened. Thanks for joining the blogathon with this great review!

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