The Conqueror -- A Barbaric Film

John W. Williams,

Political Science Principia College, Elsah,

Illinois, USA, 62028


It is becoming an accepted truism that movie previews show the best parts of any movie and that movie promotions seem to hype some other movie. The proclamation that The Conqueror is as "spectacular as its barbaric passions and savage conquests" greatly overstates, perhaps even misrepresents, this 1955 theatrical release about Genghis Khan. It was also an inauspicious directorial debut for Dick Powell.

The promotional assertions on the cover of the video cassette version of the movie are, inadvertently, very revealing. "John Wayne tackles one of his most unusual roles as he portrays The Conqueror, Genghis Khan in a lavish period epic seldom seen in this country." If The Conqueror were to be shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000, the satiric vehicle for showing bad science fiction movies with running sarcastic criticism by an audience of humans, robots, and aliens, the audience-critics would yell in unison, "And, it's a good thing that it is seldom shown." The videotape box cover proclaims the movie's importance, "Produced by the legendary Howard Hughes, this 1953 release marked the directorial debut of Dick Powell...." The MST 3000 creature/critics would respond with artistic epitaphs for Powell. The sentence continues, "and featured a cast of thousands ("how come they all looking like the same American?"), period costumes recreating 12th century China ("China, I though Genghis was in Mongolia?" or "Thank goodness they didn't really wear that stuff!"), and an international cast that includes the Duke and Academy Award winner Susan Hayward ("Certainly not for THIS movie"), plus Agnes Moorehead ("Hey, isn't that Agatha from 'Bewitched'?"), Pedro Armendariz ("Hey, Pedro, you get lost?") and William Conrad ("Wow, is that really the fat detective?")." The movie propaganda asserts, "The film was so loved by Howard Hughes that he removed it from the market after its initial run ("Howard Hughes loved it? No wonder he was weird."). Only since the settlement of the Hughes estate could this exciting 'Eastern Western' be shown ("This is good argument for keeping Hughes alive!")." The argument follows the same logic of the United States Air Force which destroyed a village in Vietnam "in order to save it." As inadvertently acknowledged in the publicity, Wayne's casting as the young Genghis Khan was highly unusual. Jack Smith, in a review in the Los Angeles Times, responded, "John Wayne as Genghis Khan--history's most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in King of Kings." Wayne is reputed to have asked for the role, stating, "The way the screenplay reads, this is a cowboy picture, and that's how I am going to play Genghis Khan. I see him as gunfighter." As a result, the movie was cast as an "Eastern Western." The New York Times concurred, calling the movie "simply an oriental western." It followed the classic American Western genre pattern, including cowboy hero mounted on his trusty steed, sidekick who would do anything for his friend, beautiful love-interest, and evil villains. Wayne rides like a cowboy and swaggers around camp like a World War II general. Small outdoor battle scenes ring familiar, as we expect to see Randolph Scott ride! around the boulder.

Many of Wayne's westerns utilize the sentimental device of the death of a favorite, and cute, pet. This tear-stirring device often accompanies another device, the death of a close and favored, though inconsequential character. Sometimes is the wagon train cook, or a grizzled ranchhand or an old family retainer. After an early battle scene, Genghis's pet panther is needless slain by the dastardly enemy, reinforcing their fundamental badness, and insinuating Genghis' fundamental though hidden goodness.

An introductory statement in the movie asserts, "This story, though fiction, is based on fact." The claim brings a giggle and foreshadows the rise of docudramas. Richard Hatch, writing in The Nation, responded, "History has not been well served and nor has the popcorn public." The film is laden with racial, ethnic, and cultural stereotypes, many from regions far from the Mongolian steppes.

John Wayne plays the young Mongol leader. Susan Hayward is the "Tartar woman," who inspires Genghis' lust. In one of the most memorable or silliest lines of the movie, Wayne growls, "There are moments for action, then I listen to my blood. I feel this tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her!" Genghis confronts Hayward with the declaration, "Know this woman, I take you for wife." So he does, stirring hatred among the Tartars and setting a series of events in motion that will lead to the death of Genghis' best friend, played by Pedro Armendariz. One film catalog describes the story as "a romance of the early life of Genghis Khan, who captures and is enamored by the daughter of an enemy." After her capture, Hayward reluctantly participates in a choreographed belly dance sequence, combining Turkish harem and Busby Berky, tinted with a hint of Siam. Eventually, Hayward breaks into a sword dance. She flings the sword, point first, into the dais, intentionally missing the guests but signaling her independent spirit. Lusty Wayne, of course, is smitten, proclaiming, "You're beautiful in your wrath."

Movie armies are not defeated because of negative qualities in the hero's leadership or character. Misfortune may befall the hero because of liberties taken of fundamental, though "good" flaws in the hero. Misplaced loyalty is a primary culprit. We honor loyalty as a good thing, upon which evil people take advantage. This is true with Genghis, who follows the advice of his shaman, who we know to be a cheat and deceitful. The shaman sets lovers and friends upon each other, so that Genghis quickly misinterprets the actions and motives of his new lover and of his best friend.

As Hayward, the tartar woman, comes to appreciate the deception, she struggles to save the hero from his flaws. At one point, captured by the tartar enemy, Genghis is to be tortured, then executed. The angry, impassioned Hayward steps up to suggest to her tribal leaders, "No torture will persuade him like a woman's gentleness." Left in her charge, Hayward facilitates Genghis's escape. Eventually, she defects from her father and her tribe, both of whom are slaughtered by Genghis.

In what was supposed to be a reverential and reflective scene, turned absurd and humorous by context and actor, Genghis prays to the "spirits of the heaven." He speaks to the heaven, giving a speech to the sky. This scene, though anachronistic, hints at the pre-Lamaist beliefs of the Mongolians. Likewise, one of the central (and evil) characters is the shaman. There are other curious points of accuracy--the horse-hair flag (still a national symbol, featured in the Naadam celebrations), eating mutton off the bone with a knife (which I have witnessed in restaurants in Ulaanbaatar), a giant ger mounted on cow-drawn cart (featured on modern Mongolian currency).

The cast deserved something better than this movie. Hayward received five Academy Award nominations over her life time, winning in 1958 for best actress in "I Want to Live." Pedro Armendariz, Genghis' best friend, was one of Mexico's top actors in the forties and fifties. A young and beefy William Conrad, the famous television detectives of "Cannon" and "Jake and the Fat Man" (guess who William Conrad was appropriate cast?) is Genghis' younger brother. Agnes Moorehead, Genghis' mother, started her career as Orson Welles' mother in "Citizen Kane" and ended as Endora on the television comedy "Bewitched." The cast also includes Thomas Gomez, John Hoyt, Ted de Corsia, and Lee Van Cleef. Gomez, a heavyset character actor who specialized in crafty villains, was nominated for best supporting actor in 1947. Van Cleef shows up in various scenes, including as a dancer, a jarring contrast to his subsequent Italian Westerns with Clint Eastwood.

The production values are spotty. The outdoor sequences, including mass battles (the cast of thousands), were filmed in Utah's Escalante Desert, site of some atomic bomb tests. The critters of MST 3000 would accept this as an explanation for the film. On a more serious note, some question the role of the location in a number of deaths of members of the cast due to cancer over the past 25 years. Three local mountains were renamed Mount Wayne, Mount Hughes, and Mount Powell. The dialog, however, was recorded on a sound stage, giving a hollow sound to the outdoor scenes.

The Conqueror was produced by Hughes, directed by Powell, written by Oscar Millard, photographed by Joseph LaShelle, Leo Tover and Harry J. Wild, with music by Victor Young. The video cover contributes to the confusion by recording, as do the movie catalogs, that The Conqueror was released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1955. The movie was filmed in Technicolor and Cinemascope. It is approximately 112 minutes long. Because of its vintage, it had not been rated by the MPAA. The VHS video cassette version was released in 1986 by MCA Home Video.