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The Duke as The Khan: American Renditions of Chinggis Khan

John W. Williams

It is widely recognized that Americans derive their impressions of the world from the mass media, including film. This short paper sets forth basic details on three theatrical releases, repeatedly broadcast on cable television movie channels, that claimed to portray the life and times of Chinggis Khan or characters vaguely related, at least in the mind of Hollywood movie makers.

John Wayne was perhaps the only thing memorable (as being so miscast) about the 1955 production of "The Conqueror." The movie, filmed in Technicolor and Cinemascope, was 112 minutes long. It was produced and directed by Dick Powell and distributed by Howard Hughes, the famous millionaire eccentric. Among the Duke's costars were Susan Hayward (she received five Academy Award nominations over her lifetime, winning in 1958 for best actress in "I Want to Live"), Pedro Armendariz (one of Mexico's top movie stars in the forties and fifties), Anges Moorhead (she started her career as Orson Welles' mother in "Citizen Kane" and ended as Endora on the television comedy "Bewitched"), Thomas Gomez (heavyset character actor who often played crafty villains and was nominated for the best supporting actor Academy Award in 1947), William Conrad (made famous as the tubby television detective "Cannon"), and Lee Van Cleef (was Clint Eastwood's foil in his early Italian westerns).

The movie is supposed to be a cross between adventure and romance, set early in the life of Genghis Khan. Genghis, played by Wayne, captures and falls in love with the daughter of an enemy, played by Hayward. The plot is peopled with dancing girls, bloodthirsty action, and "solemn pantomine."

"The Conqueror" was filmed in the Escalante Desert in Utah, an area that had been used for atomic tests. Halliwell's Film Guide notes that years later several members of the cast died of cancer. Three of the local mountains were renamed Mount Wayne, Mount Hughes, and Mount Powell.

Apparently Wayne asked for the role. According to Halliwell's, Wayne said, "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 a gunfighter." The "New York Times" called it "simply an oriental western." Jack Smith, writing in the "Los Angeles Times," stated, "John Wayne as Genghis Khan -- history's most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in King of Kings." Richard Hatch, writing in "The Nation," summed it all, "History has not been well served and nor has the popcorn public." Perhaps the only thing we will remember of the movie was Genghis Khan's declaration, "This tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her!"

Some have confused the John Wayne film with "Genghis Khan," the 1964 Irving Allen production, distributed by Columbia Pictures. This was a joint American, English, German, and Yugoslavian coproduction. It was filmed in Technicolor and Panavision, and is 126 minutes in length. It was directed by Henry Levin.

With a better eye for casting, Genghis is played by Omar Sharif (who had earlier received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in David Lean's 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia," and who had the title role in "Doctor Zhivago," 1965). Among the costars were Stephen Boyd (played Messala in "Ben-Hur"), Francoise Dorleac (the sister of Catherine Deneuve, killed in a car accident at age 25 in 1967), James Mason (one of England's most prolific actors, a leading star in the forties and fifties), Robert Morley (the well-known English actor, better recognized for his comedy roles), Telly Savalas (to become famous as "Kojack," the bald New York City police detective), Woody Strode (the black character actor who portrayed a black soldier on trial for murder and rape in John Ford's groundbreaking "Sergeant Rutledge," 1960), Eli Wallach (the respected Method actor who starred opposite of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in one of the early Italian westerns), and Yvonne Mitchell (a respected English stage actress, who won the British Film Academy Award for her role in "The Divided Heart," 1954).

Columbia billed "Genghis Khan" as: "In the eight centuries since he ruled the world, no man has matched the magnificence of his adventure!" The movie, in the style of the Hollywood epics, tells of Genghis' revenge on his old enemy Jamuga. Like its predecessor, "Genghis Khan" has its share of brutality, "with pantomimish comedy and bouts of sex." (Halliwell's Film Guide, 8th ed.)

The last of the three films under consideration is not about Chinggis Khan but "Taras Bulba." The 1962 American film was produced by Harold Hecht and distributed by United Artists. It was filmed in Eastmancolor and Panavision, and is 124 minutes in length. Directed by John Lee-Thompson, best known for directing "The Guns of Navarone," "Taras Bulba" received an Academy Award nomination for Franz Waxman's music.

Taras Bulba is played by Yul Brynner, with his trademark shaved head. Brynner is most noted for his leading role in the stage and film versions of the musical "The King and I." He won the Academy Award for best actor for the movie version. The casting as Bulba seemed appropriate with Brynner's part-gypsy ancestor, which he intentionally kept shrouded in mystery. Bulba's friend and confidente was played by Tony Curtis, who had earlier received an Academy Award nomination for best actor in "The Defiant Ones" (1958). Other costars included Christine Kaufmann (the German actress who married Tony Curtis after the movie was completed), Sam Wanamaker (one of those who fled to England during the years of the Hollywood black lists), Guy Rolfe (a British supporting actor), George Macready (who made his mark, particularly in the forties, as a villian "par excellence"), Vladimir Sokoloff (a Russian actor who often played Slavic characters), and Abraham Sofaer (a Burmese-Jewish character actor, known for his exotic foreign roles).

"Taras Bulba" is included in this list for several reasons. The first is that it seems to be aired more on late night movie shows and cable channels. The second is that, like the tow other films, it portrays a version of life on the steppes. It is epic the story of the rebellious son, Bulba, of a cossack leader (at least Hollywood's version of cossacks), filled with action, adventure, and violence. With great overstatement, United Artists proclaimed: "Now! add a motion picture to the wonders of the world!"

While epics, none of these films achieve any artistic heights, document historical events, or record cultural life. At the most, they are probably guilty of framing America's image of Chinggis Khan, the Mongols, and Mongolia. Certainly, films such as "Urgha" deserve at least equal time on the cable movie channels.

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