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The Conqueror (1956)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez

Written By: Oscar Millard Directed By: Dick Powell

The Shot

John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan.  Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

The Highball

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s bad for you, and it’s been nuked.  But it works with salty chips anyway!

Pairs Well With...

MAD DOG 20/20.

I’ll say it again.  John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan.  Only Mad Dog can properly wash that crap down.

“For me, there is no peace while you live, Mongol!”

“You’re beautiful in your wrath.”

Let’s play a game, shall we?  Try to think of most horribly miscast role in Hollywood history.

Geroge Lazenby as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?  Good start, I say!

One-up without leaving the 007 series via Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough?  Bravo!  I use that as the gold standard example by which all other poor casting decisions are judged, myself.

Jack Palance as Fidel Castro in Che!, you suggest?  Good try, but personally, I’m more willing to buy that than I am Denise Richards pretending to supervise the decommissioning of a nuclear missile silo.

John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror?  Ding-ding-ding!  Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner!  For certain values of winning.  And tiger blood.  Or something.

Go ahead and get a drink, folks; you’re going to need it.

Even before considering the casting of John Wayne – who muscled his way in past Marlon Brando, who would have been a casting atrocity of a different scent but an atrocity none the less – The Conqueror is one of the most jaw-dropping awful movies ever to be gifted with a massive Hollywood budget.  The script is a disaster, with headache-inducing dialogue that comes across as even more phony than the 99.99% false history of its story.  (I know; no shock there.  The only accuracy-related surprise for me, honestly, is that Khan’s real birth name of Temujin is used for the majority of the film.  Meanwhile, the horrid dialogue – a stilted, often stutter-stop broken English of the sort normal used during this era to indicate that the speakers are supposed to be Native Americans, which The Conqueror tries to make the Mongols into, with a side order of swashbuckling cowboy in the case of Temujin – only serves to magnify the gigantic smelly yak in the room: the flagrant racism that underlies the entire picture.  And let’s not overlook the fact that the entire premise of the first half of the script is a protracted kidnapping and rape.  But; I’m using 21st Century voice here.  Let’s get back to the 1950s, shall we?)  The leading cast has the chops to work past it – and Pedro Armendariz of From Russia With Love fame does his damndest – but even the bombastic John Wayne looks defeated after a while, as do the normally unflappable Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward.  And as much as I’m sure everyone enjoys looking at Susan Hayward, I’m just not picturing those nightgowns being regular dress even for princesses on the Mongolian steppes, y’know?

Speaking of eye-catching visuals… there are some who remark that at least the exterior vistas – shot in the American West, of course – look nice, but for me, the wretched dialogue and story prove too much of a distraction, and when the visuals matter most during the battle sequences, the daytime shots reveal laughably awful fight choreography, and the nighttime shots – which, having been filmed in 1954, were actually done during the daytime and/or twilight – are so darkened down as to be pointless, even on a modern high definition screen.  Come to think of it, I suspect that the director gave up hope pretty early on into the production, too.

One can’t even throw The Conqueror the standard bone of “at least the production created jobs,” because tragically, getting a job on this set proved to be hazardous to everyone’s health.  Producer Howard Hughes – who gave up producing movies after this – chose to make the movie downwind from the Yucca Flats nuclear test site not too long after the US government had dropped a dozen atomic bombs there.  The government assured him that the location was perfectly safe, but history proved the government wrong; members of the cast and crew were later diagnosed with cancer at several times the normal national average… including John Wayne himself, who eventually died of the disease. 

But horrible as The Conqueror is and tragic though its history may be, there’s still something magnetic about it.  For persons like myself who consider themselves connoisseurs of what the late and lamented Blockbuster Video used to call “Le Bad Cinema,” The Conqueror is a pilgrimage picture that demands to be seen at least once, preferably in the company of a like-minded friend or three to appreciate MST3K style over a large quantity of high-potency alcohol.  (Yes, the blatant racism and misogyny can be a challenge for the modern civilized audience, but part of the joy of watching MST3K style comes from throwing biting commentary back at the screen.)

For anyone else, though, The Conqueror is just plain unwatchable.  Even John Wayne himself ended up hating John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and if that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, Pilgrim, I don’t know what will.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2015

More From The Bar! | Confucius | Dracula Untold | The Face of Fu Manchu |

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