The Conqueror (1956) – Genghis Khan’t

Originally posted on Fun Time Internet on May 13, 2009.

The Conqueror recounts the epic tale of Temujin, a 12th-century Mongol warlord, and his rise to power to become Genghis Khan, ruler of the largest land empire in history. The film is shot in glorious Technicolor and breathtaking panoramic CinemaScope. The action is rousing. The soundtrack is suitably sweeping. The screenplay is full of Shakespearean dialogue. The lead male and female actors are both Oscar winners at the peak of their careers.

With all these things going for it, how could this film not be a critical and financial success? I’ve got five words for ya:


In one of the most head-scratchingly bizarre casting decisions ever, Hollywood’s consummate cowboy, the All-American conservative tough guy, is thrust into the role of the iconic Asian military genius. He tackles this part with the same intensity that made his Westerns so famous. By which I mean he plays the part exactly like he was in a Western, complete with his famous ambling swagger and syntax-defying cowboy drawl. Remember how I mentioned the Shakespearean dialogue? Wayne’s often-parodied delivery butchers such eloquent lines as “Ya di’nt suckle me ta be slain by Tartars, my mo-ther” and “Ah ree-gret that Ah cannot sal-ute ya as I would, ber-eft of spit.” Or my personal favourite, “Shaaare the booooty!” Wayne’s quintessentially American performance unintentionally transforms this serious-minded action epic into an instant comedy classic.

But at least he looks Asian, right?

Of course he looks Asian. He has a “Fu Manchu” mustache. All Asians have “Fu Manchu” mustaches. At least they do in all American movies.

At least the other actors make an attempt to look somewhat foreign…

They managed to make Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz look even more Mexican. I guess the make-up people were happy just as long as he didn’t look white.

Okay, but actress Susan Hayward looks authentic, right?

‘Cause we all know 12th-century Mongolian women had red-permed hair and Caucasian eyes and bone structure.

Are there any actual Asians in this film? I watched it three times, and counted only two. And of the two, only one had any dialogue. A single line of dialogue. Something about asking the Khan if he was satisfied with his meal. He wasn’t. Nothin’ says authentic Asian culture and history quite like white folks in embarrassingly bad makeup reinforcing embarrassingly-bad stereotypes.

This film begins with young Genghis Khan (referred to as Temujin throughout) raiding a caravan to kidnap Bortai (Susan Hayward), the daughter of the Tartar chieftain Kumlek, his father’s murderer. The first thing Temujin does after capturing Bortai is to rip off her dress and hand it to her intended fiancé as a “souvenir.” This movie makes “Mad Men” look like “Everybody Loves Raymond”.

Most of the movie dwells on their fire-and-ice relationship. A typical scene begins with Temujin drunkenly demanding something like, “Dance Tartar-woman! Dance for Temujin!” To which she retorts something like, “I don’t dance for jackals.” To which he responds by carrying her off into his tent, declaring something like, “Know this, Tartar woman, I take you for wife.” To which she utters another angry retort, which is often answered with a bitch-slap and a rape scene. But of course she “had it coming.” This is the 1950s after all. This scene repeats itself again and again. That’s pretty much the whole movie.

The Conqueror AKA Rape: A Love Story

There’s also a completely unnecessary (but much appreciated) seven-minute dance sequence halfway through the film involving scantily clad women. These dancers are from exotic lands. Does that make them Exotic Dancers? Does THIS answer your question?

During this burlesque routine Temujin slyly asks Bortai if she’d be into a threesome with the dancer. When Bortai refuses to answer, he suggests she’s jealous of the dancer’s physical and sexual prowess. True to form, Bortai responds by ripping off her top and performing an even sexier dance routine(?!). This movie is starting to feel like a slightly classier version of Showgirls (1995).

Of course Bortai manages to incorporate a sword into this routine, which, after inducing Temujin into a randy state, she hurls at him in a failed attempt to kill her rapist.

Temujin responds, unsurprisingly, by violently manhandling her and ordering her to be sent to the “women’s quarters,” which in this palace would more accurately be described as the “harem.” Eventually the Tartars raid the Mongol camp and take Temujin prisoner. The filmmakers use some extremely unsubtle methods to turn the rapist Temujin into a Christ-like figure.

Genghis Christ?

 To the surprise of no one Bortai betrays her people, sets Temujin free, and helps him conquer most of the Asian continent. Why you ask? I’d venture to guess the reasoning is one part Stockholm Syndrome and two parts Battered Wife Syndrome. Either way, it’s pretty obvious the guy who wrote this script has some serious woman issues.

“Temujin has escaped!” “I told ya we shoulda put more than two walls on this cage!”

Even without John Wayne’s hilariously inappropriate performance this film would still be a disaster. The overall look and feel of the movie is incongruously Western-esque. All of the action sequences are shot using the same conventions as a cowboy film. The Mongol raid on the Tartar caravan in the film’s opening looks more like a band of “Injuns” attacking a wagon train of white settlers than a scene from a lavish historical epic. Filling in for the steppes of Mongolia are the very familiar mountains of Utah. The very sight of these flat-topped peaks immediately conjures up images of the American West. The film never feels culturally, historically, ethnically, or geographically authentic for a moment.

The Conqueror’s Utah shooting location is also the source of great controversy and tragedy. The shooting location was contaminated by nuclear fallout from a nearby nuclear testing site. After location shooting finished, producer Howard Hughes ordered truckloads of radioactive soil from the area to be transported back to Hollywood to match the interior shots. Of the film’s 220 cast and crew members 91 contracted cancer and half succumbed to the disease, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Lee Van Cleef, director Dick Powell, and Pedro Armendariz (who committed suicide shortly after completing work on From Russia with Love). These figures don’t include the several hundred Native Americans who served as extras. (That’s right, Hollywood tried to pass Native Americans off as Asians, a practice that would prove more fruitful inCannibal! The Musical.)

Sure, they laugh now. But wait’ll they find out they’re drinking contaminated water. Irony 1, Mongols 0.

Howard Hughes later pulled the film from theatres and bought all the prints in an effort to destroy it. A film so bad it killed John Wayne and the studio tried to destroy it.

The great irony of it all is that John Wayne literally pulled the movie’s script out of a garbage can after Dick Powell discarded it and demanded the director make the film starring him. Wayne wasn’t blackmailed into wearing the silly ‘stache and uttering those ludicrous lines. He practically spearheaded the whole debacle.

The Conqueror is a prime example of how even the best intentions, the biggest talent, and the biggest budget can combine to create the perfect shit-storm of failure. This movie is a train wreck to be sure, but it’s a fairly well-made, entertaining, and often hilarious train wreck.

My Rating
Technical/Artistic Rating: 2 Truckloads of Radioactive Soil out of 5

Pure Entertainment Rating: 3½ Silly Mustaches out of 5

BONUS FEATURES It seems Hollywood didn’t learn any lessons from John Wayne’s embarrassing example. In the 1990s white ponytailed action star Steven Seagal attempted to produce and star in his passion project, Genghis Khan.Fortunately a Mafia extortion ring put an end to an even worse cinematic crime against humanity. Thank you, organized crime.

Steven Seagal is... "KHANder Seige"

As an extra special bonus feature here’s Germany’s answer to ABBA, Dschinghis Khan (German for Genghis Khan) performing their epic Eurovision hit “Genghis Khan.”

In 2008 J-Pop girl band Berryz Kobo released a cover of this song. Curiously, their version does not include any of the original’s references to war, alcoholism or rape.


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