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In ancient times, the Mongolian warlord Temujin must do battle against the rival tribe that killed his father. The battles pale in comparison with Temujin's home life, as he attempts to woo the heart of the red-haired Tartar prisoner Bortai whom he has captured in a raid. He must also deal with various intrigues within his palace. Eventually, Bortai falls to his manly charms, Temujin defeats his enemies within and without, and is crowned Genghis Khan. Written by
"I am Temujin, the Conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army defeat me"
Of course, everyone knows the story of this one. The original plan from the brain trust at RKO was to borrow Marlon Brando from 20th Century Fox and have him star in this one. When Fox refused to cooperate, Howard Hughes apparently remembered that John Wayne still had one more picture left on the RKO contract he signed back in 1939. And so, one of the most dubious casting decisions in Hollywood history was made. It deserved its spot in the "50 Worst Films of All Time" list. This one is for Wayne completests and die-hard bad film junkies only.
This is the one film John Wayne made that is truly terrible. All the others (even the lesser ones) at least have something to recommend them. But the thing that sets The Conqueror apart from all the rest is how extremely pedestrian everything is. Let's start with the script, which is the overriding problem throughout the whole film. It's written in a sort of mock-Shakespearian lingo and is filled with dialogue that anyone on earth would have a hard time saying with a straight face.
Next we have the casting. John Wayne and Susan Hayward, both at their career peak, were cast in this one. Neither one looks the least bit Asian (Hayward doesn't even try to). You get the feeling throughout that both of them know this thing is a joke, and they are both just trying to make it through. Wayne drawls his way through the role of Genghis Khan, while Hayward is alternately dumb/boring as Bortai, his red-headed wife. Even the lower billed actors look uncomfortable in gaudy costumes that look like they were borrowed from a high school play.
Of course, we can't forget the music. Victor Young (The Quiet Man) wrote some of the greatest scores in Hollywood history, but this one certainly ranks as one of his worst. Here he seems to be repeating the same few bars of the melodramatic theme over and over again throughout the film with little to no variation.
Next we come to the cinematography. This was the one thing that could have made the film worthwhile. It didn't. While the on-location battle scenes were well-suited to the CinemaScope photography, too much of the film took place inside tents and palaces (i.e. on soundstages), giving it a cluster phobic look at times. Most of the action takes place in the middle of the frame, the director doesn't even come close to tapping the full potential of the widescreen technology he was working with. Other Wayne films from around the same time (The High and the Mighty, The Sea Chase, Blood Alley) made much better use of CinemaScope photography.
Last we have the direction by Dick Powell. This was just the second film Powell directed (the first was Split Second, a 1953 noir film also for RKO that starred Stephen McNally and Jan Sterling), and it showed. In all fairness, he was saddled with a impossible script and a meddling boss (Hughes). Powell would later go on to direct some good war movies over at Fox with Robert Mitchum (The Enemy Below, The Hunters). I guess Powell learned his lesson with this one and stuck to twentieth-century wars after this, leaving the ancient history alone!
Of course there were other problems during shooting (Sue's erratic and irrational affection for Duke) and the cancer cases that occurred later were an unintentional tragedy of this film. Hughes personally bought back the rights to this film (along with Jet Pilot) when he sold RKO in the late 50's. Legend has it that in his last days, he watched this film over and over while in bed. Maybe his strange behavior before his death was the result of seeing a little too much of the The Conqueror. Viewers, Beware!!!!!
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