Some bad movies are easy for me to find, I simply buy it in a store if it’s new, or online if it’s older. Generally this isn’t a problem. Occasionally though I have to jump through some hoops to track down nightmares of celluloid to inflict on my friends and loved ones. Unfortunately the thing about bad movies is that most people don’t like them 1 and due to that, they sometimes go out of print. This month’s installment is about a movie that was my white whale for a long time, a movie I was literally questing to find, until I found a booth at Origins International Game Expo called Belle & Blade War Video and special ordered a copy. Of course now if you’d like to own it you can buy it through Universal’s Vault Series for far less than I paid. However, this movie’s infamy was well worth the wait and I can bring you our first Bad Movie Classic, The Conqueror with John Wayne as Genghis Khan.
First off, no, that isn’t a typo. Secondly, he’s not the only one grievously miscast in this film. Among the other top billed actors in the move you’ll find Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armandariz, and Lee Van Cleef. You may notice that none of those name sound Asian. This isn’t unusual for 1956, but this movie has so much more going on than rampant orientalism, sexism and whitewashing, if I wanted to talk to you about just those we could watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s so let’s dive in shall we?
You won’t be hearing the name Genghis Khan much in this film, as that name is rather like Darth Vader, it’s kind of a title and a name. And as this is “Genghis Khan Begins”, you’ll be hearing John Wayne called Temujin for the entire film. What you also won’t be hearing is anyone attempting any kind of dialect.
The film begins with Temujin and his war party out raiding on The Steppe (just kidding–it’s Utah!) when they come upon the Tartar Princess Bortai (Hayward) and her soon-to-be husband Targutai on their way back to his home. Temujin figures that since he finds Bortai attractive she should be his wife instead of Tragutai’s. Temujin kills him and kidnaps Bortai back to his camp, against the advice of his blood-brother Jamuga (Armandariz). And this is apparently what this movie considers a wonderful beginning to a love story. Oh 1950s. After Temujin spends most of his time with Bortai with her trying to murder him, him slapping her repeatedly and him literally ripping a dress off her. The movie decides to progress to some semblance of a plot when Temujin decides to bribe Wang Khan, the current Mongol leader, with Bortai’s stolen dowry for his help in destroying her father the Tartar leader Kumlek.
With constant objections from all his generals, including Jamuga, Temujin and his army visit Wang Khan where he makes the gift, however soon Borai escapes back to her family and Temujin finds himself betrayed by Jamuga and in tartar hands, will he be able to escape and win the day for…love? I guess?
I could honestly go on longer about the plot of this thing. However, the production is just that much of a train-wreck, it begs for some time to be spent on it. Back in 1956, you may have heard, Howard Hughes was a thing. At this point in life one of the many, many things he owned was RKO pictures, and he really wanted to make this movie. He and the other producers had asked rising star Marlon Brando to take on the role, but Brando was still in his right mind at this time so he passed. RKO also had John Wayne under contract for three films, he’d already made two, and Wayne was meeting with director Dick Powell to discuss what his last film would be. Powell was going over a variety of scripts with Wayne, none of which was The Conqueror which Powell had thrown in the trash earlier that day. However, Powell was called away for a few minutes and when he got back he found John Wayne reading a copy of the script he had fished out of the trash. He was literally reading out lines out loud when Powell walked back in the room. Apparently no matter what the director did, John Wayne would not be dissuaded from playing Genghis Khan. As many times I’ve called films garbage this is the first time where I’ve reviewed one that literally was.
Thus, with The Duke’s instance, began one of the laziest examples of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. While the performance aspect of The Conqueror is an unabashed failure (more on this in a minute) what really stands out is the fact that the production staff did an amount of research that wouldn’t get you by in middle school history. For instance, while they did happen to notice that Mongols lived in Yurts, they did not notice that Yurts are, elaborate tents. They’re meant to be broke down. Hence this:
You’ll also notice that this was filmed in Utah, one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of the United States. The Mongolian Steppe looks absolutely nothing like this. The filmmakers couldn’t film in Mongolia due to the cold war, and apparently thought that was the best they could get, let’s compare
So they couldn’t find a temperate grassland with some mountains in the background, man they would have had to go so far like to… Montana:
You know they didn’t have Google, but they could have at least opened a National Geographic.
Speaking of the filming location, it was 133 miles downwind of a place called the Nevada National Security Site, and in the 1950s National Security meant one thing:
Yep, Nukes. Three years prior to filming the US government blasted that area of Nevada with 11 Nuclear tests, and they went and filmed a movie in it. Hughes even shipped dirt from the site to a soundstage for reshoots. John Wayne even brought his sons by the set to check out the clicks on a Giger Counter which they did with their shirts off.
Overall 91 people developed cancer and 46 of them died of the disease, including John Wayne and Susan Hayward, and that is so not funny. Experts overall are split on whether or not the radiation from the site made the cancer rate higher than normal if lifestyle is factored in. Although a spokesperson for the Defense Nuclear Agency (you know that guy’s job sucked) told the news “Please God don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”
This movie is whiter than my high school production of The King and I. 2 The filmmakers once again went about this particular problem in the laziest way possible. They cast American Indians from a nearby reservation as mongols, 3 got some latin guys for the major parts, and had everyone grow fu manchu mustaches. Susan Hayward as Bortai stays as pale and red headed as she always was, though the Tartar empire extended far I don’t believe it reached Ireland. And just you’re suspending your disbelief, frustration and burning white hot rage at having to pretend white people and latinos are asian, two actual asian people appear in the movie. Oh look the anger’s back again!
John Wayne’s performance is a John Wayne performance. That’s really all I can say about it. He plays Genghis Khan like he played most of the roles he ever played, he rides a horse, yells at people and says everything in that same cowboy drawl he always did. There is absolutely no attempt to become Genghis Khan more than mustache and bronzer applications. Though he did start a diet and workout regimen which included *loads* of amphetamines. However, just like everybody on the production staff, he just treated it like a Western that happened to take place in Mongolia. Although…okay you’re just going to have to go with me here: the more I learn about Genghis Khan; the more I hear quotes attributed to him; it kinda works. I’m going to give you some actual Genghis Khan quotes, do your best impression of The Duke and see how it lines up.
“I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
“Come and sip from the cup of destruction”
“Conquering the world on horseback is easy, it is dismounting and governing that is hard.”
And when Temujin summoned his warlords to praise him upon becoming Genghis Khan he said that those who didn’t show up should know, “their fate will be as a stone dropped into water, they will simply disappear.”
At the very least I think Genghis Khan might have liked the movie.
Even after all that I can’t make John Wayne the Bad Movie Hero, mainly because it’s still terrible. See the part about the orientalist, sexist, and whitewashed. But I don’t think we’ve had a director Bad Movie Hero yet, and while Dick Powell did direct the laziest possible adaptation on an irradiated wasteland he had one instinct, one thing that makes him our tragic hero today.
He tried to throw it away.
- I can’t understand why
- Oddly enough the movie of The King and I, made the same year had at least a handful of asian people in the cast.
- After decades of casting Italian guys as Native people, of course. I’m sure the irony was not lost on them. Side note to the jokes, I’m using general terms because I don’t know which reservation they recruited from so I’m not sure on their ethnicity. Believe me, I looked.