The Conqueror (1956)

Editorial Note: Several people have noted in the comments that my intro to this review is extremely similar to an old article by Cecil Adams. I answered them in the comments, but they don’t seem to be reading those and the messages keep arriving, so I’ll repeat myself here.

I wrote the intro back in 2002 back when I first considered reviewing the film, so I don’t remember referencing the article. It’s pretty similar, though, so I’ll gladly cop to it. In any case, I think both Mr. Adams and I cribbed from The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved, so all the original research was done by them. I did reference that book in my intro, and so, it turns out, did Mr. Adams.

Anyway, Mr. Adams’ honor is avenged and my base ignomy is exposed.  Still, the purer of heart may wish to read Mr. Adams’ article in lieu of my intro, and just stick with the 95% of the piece that is uncontestedly mine.


On its face, The Conqueror represents quite a lot of what we celebrate here regarding Cinema Gone Horribly Wrong.(And we do indeed celebrate as well as castigate.)The film provides probably the single greatest instance of miscasting in cinema history.The script is utterly turgid whilst abounding with hilariously purple dialogue.The picture’s extravagant attempts to achieve an epic feel instead seem merely ponderous and occasionally hilarious.

However, we must tread lightly here as with no other film we’ve yet reviewed, or are ever likely too.As with any large undertaking involving masses of people and dangerous equipment, filmmaking can be an inherently perilous undertaking.People die making movies, from the silent days of 1928’s Noah’s Ark, when extras drowned during a spectacular flooding scene, to the deaths of three people on the set of 1983’s The Twilight Zone.Those specific incidents were caused by criminal hubris and disregard for human safety on the part of the filmmakers.Even barring such extremes, however, others die through simple misadventure or outright freak chance, such as Brandon Lee’s demise during the filming of The Crow.

Yet of all the tragedies in Hollywood history, none can even approach the toll of misery resulting from our current subject.Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s.46 of them died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada. The whole ghastly story is told in The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved.

Filming took place in the canyon lands around St. George, Utah, where the shoot proved highly chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, an inadequately trained black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out the entire production and its cast and crew.Sadly, these were to be mere harbingers of the tragedy that unfolded as the decades passed.

In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada.As a result, immense clouds of radioactive fallout periodically floated downwind of the test sites. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a goodly portion of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process.Even worse, in order to match the location footage, producer Howard Hughes—yes, that Howard Hughes—eventually shipped 60 tons of hot sand and earth back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes.

Many involved with the production were aware of the nearby tests and the possibility of fallout. However, few at the time considered it much of a threat.There’s actually a picture of Wayne operating a Geiger counter during the shoot.He presumably did so with little more comprehension of the danger than a blasé John Agar would exhibit doing the same in one of his cheesy sci-fi flicks from the same era.

By thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer.Well before that, many veterans of The Conqueror had themselves realized their predicament.Co-star Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after filming was completed. He eventually shot himself after learning his condition was terminal.

Hughes was said to have felt “guilty as hell” about the whole affair, although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself. Like several of his other “unappreciated” films, he screened it in solitude night after night during his paranoid last years. Stories have it that his personal projectionist attended to his duties blindfolded, so that only Hughes would look upon them.

In the following article, I will attempt to judge the film on its own merits (or, more precisely, the lack thereof), independent of the production’s grotesquely morbid backstory.However, I can entirely understand someone finding this to be incredibly callous.It was similar qualms that had me discussing the matter with my peers quite a few years ago when I first considered reviewing the picture. In the end, I put the idea aside. Only when my good friend Andrew Borntreger of suggested a team-up did I finally decide it was time to put the issue to rest, once and for all.

In any case, you are now forewarned.I can certainly understand a reticence to laugh at something that resulted in so much tragedy.I am not unmindful of it myself by any means.With that warning, let those of us who so choose proceed on.


The Conqueror was meant to be an epic love story detailing Genghis Khan’s uncontrollable passion for the beautiful princess Bortai (Hayward). In actuality, it was a classic Hollywood big budget fiasco, one of many financed by would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes. In the end, the film never was destined to be very good.However, one key misstep was enough to ruin any chances it ever had.

Originally director Dick Powell wanted recent sensation Marlon Brando for the lead.However, John Wayne, then at the height of his popularity, happened to see the script one day.For whatever reason, he decided he and Genghis were meant for each other. Thus began one of the oddest, and obviously most heartrending, chapters in Hollywood history.

Unfortunately, the script’s dialogue was written in a hilariously cornball style meant to inject a suitable exotic and ‘literary’ note to the proceedings.The results are somewhat less credible than the Ye Olde English vernacular spouted by the Norse gods in your average The Mighty Thor comic. This aspect was then ludicrously magnified by the Duke’s wooden line readings. Wayne presumably wanted to stretch a bit—although he tried to reassure prospective ticket buyers by hailing the project as a “Western with swords”—yet he was clearly uncomfortable with the mock period (emphasize on the mock) dialogue.

Let me be clear, however.There are those who, for whatever reasons, dismiss Wayne as an actor.You can put me in the diametrically opposite camp.Wayne didn’t have overmuch range, he often exhibited painful stiffness in his early days as an actor, and in his later days he could get a tad lazy about the whole filmmaking thing.Indeed, he spent most of his final years churning out for his loyal heartland fanbase a series of unambitious flicks, films he made surrounded by his friends and family.(I find it hard to fault him for that, though.)

The fact remains, however, that no one can star in as many truly great films as Wayne did if they didn’t have a hell of a lot of chops.This is the man who headlined Stagecoach, They Were Expendable, Red River, The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and True Grit.And that is just his very best and most famous work.Dozens of other titles could be added in which Wayne provided very good to downright inspired performances.Wake of the Red Witch is just one example of a more obscure picture for which Wayne limns a wonderfully drawn, and not atypically dark, character.

Indeed, many film historians would label Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers as the single greatest performance in American cinema.And if Wayne indeed stopped striving much in of his later films—at an age, it must be noted, when most others would simply retire altogether—he was yet able to pull out all the stops for his last picture, The Shootist.Playing an aged gunfighter dying of cancer, the film was an obviously autobiographical swansong for the screen’s greatest star.

If Wayne often displayed genius in examining various shades of his own archetype, however, it remains true that he often courted disaster when straying far afield.Wayne’s incompatibility for material such as seen here was evident even in his one-line cameo in the overstuffed, all star Biblical misfire The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).After Jesus dies on the cross, a familiar bulky form in Roman Centurion garb takes center stage, appearing only as a dramatic black silhouette.”Truly,” the world’s most famous voice drawls forth, “this was the Son of Gawwd.”

Wayne might have seen Genghis Khan as but another man who tamed the wild frontier, but he himself proved unable to conquer the script’s purple dialogue.Unsurprisingly, his greatest handicap in this regard was his famously all-American accent and cadence.In the following passage, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai:

“There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you.And there are moments fer action; then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!'”

Wayne’s thespian unsuitability was matched by his equally evident physical inaptness for the role.His patently bogus epicanthal folds—think Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice—stringy Fu Manchu mustache and greasy, black-thatched wig could only have hoped to inspired repressed titters in lieu of all out guffaws.As one wag opined, it was the world’s “most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.”


The film opens on red mountain plains that rather more suggest (surprise) American western scrublands than Mongolia.This remains true throughout the film, and hence a more or less constant source of amusement.Indeed, in the very short term we will see Wayne riding down one said hillside, leaving a billowing trail of red dust behind him.

Seconds later the quiet is broken by the sounds of thundering hoofs, and into shot ride a bunch of horsemen.This is accompanied by a professional but uninspired ‘epic’ score, all pounding drums and blaring, martial horns.In the forefront of this horde (maybe 40 to 50 riders) is Wayne, who swings his sword around in one upraised fist.

Then we cut to *COUGH* ‘Tartar’ princess Bortai (emphasis on the ‘bor’).As played by auburn haired, milky skinned Susan Hayward, Bortai is about as unconvincing a Tartar princess as one could wish short of casting an actual albino.One wonders if they meant to distract from Wayne’s evident unsuitably for his role by so miscasting the other lead role as well.

We watch Temujin—Genghis Khan’s birth name—and his men ride around butte country until the credits end.The shots really don’t seem to match up well, and frankly director Powell is no David Lean.He gets the job done, but there’s not a lot of poetry or grandeur to things.However, as usual Hughes clearly threw a gigantic amount of his own money into the project.Temujin’s yurt-filled village is impressively large and ornate without being ridiculously huge, as it probably would today via CGI effects.Like when Michael Bay increased by a factor of ten the number of Jap Zeros attacking Hawaii in Pearl Harbor.

This *cough* action-packed opening concluded, we get the obligatory establishing crawl. Cuing the audience that this will be a compelling love story fully as much as a rousing action film—which, sadly, proves entirely true—this is accompanied by a bland orchestral piece presumably entitled “Love Theme from The Conqueror“:

This story, though fiction, is based on fact.

In the twelfth century the Gobi Desert seethed with unrest.Mongols, Merkits,* Tartars and Karkaits struggled for survival in a harsh and arid land.Petty chieftains pursued their small ambitions with cunning and wanton cruelty.Plunder and rapine were a way of life and no man trusted his brother.

Out of this welter of treachery and violence there arose one of the greatest warriors the world has never known—a conqueror whose coming changed the face of the world.”

[*I’m sorry, I’m not doing a “Merkit Manor” joke.Sorry, Animal Planet fans.]

Then, thankfully, we get right into things.The film still runs nearly two hours, and the action can oft be sluggish, but it generally does move.We now see that Bortai is part of a caravan, and herself ensconced upon a yak-drawn palanquin. This is open to the sides but has a canopy, perhaps in an attempt to explain the princess’ comical lack of melanin, and almost certainly to keep Ms. Hayward’s pale skin from frying up in the blistering sun.

Powell’s forte clearly wasn’t directing actors, at least given the evidence provided here.The performances tend to suggest a community theater production rather than a multi-million dollar production with a veteran cast.Actually, blaming this on Powell is perhaps misguided.Such exaggerated, low rent acting is a regular trait of Hughes’ productions, and one imagines the magnate considered himself at the very least an equal partner to Powell when it came to directing the film.

In any case, Hayward plays her part seemingly by acting out a small handful of primary emotional states, perhaps communicated to her by flashcards; haughty, icy, enraged, fiery, enraptured, etc.Eye-popping and nostril flaring come heavily into play throughout.That’s true not just of Ms. Hayward but pretty much everyone else as well.Wayne actually often tries to underplay Temujin, but he has his own obvious handicaps working against him.

On the other hand, the picture’s no cheap horse opera.If it doesn’t exactly rise to a DeMille-ian level of opulence—even Hughes only had so many millions to squander on his cinematic hobby—the caravan is still pretty impressive, with teams of yoked yaks and traveling yurts and so forth.Again, though, much of the scale of things is undercut by just how bland the presentation of them is.

For her part, Bortai rests upon her shaded palanquin and looks bored, presumably because she’s never met a Real Man.This is solved mere moments later, as two horsemen appear up on a red rock hill to a shrill trumpet blare.They ride down toward the caravan (rousing the previously mentioned cloud of red dust), and prove to be Temujin and his right hand man, Jamuga.Up until now the film has been merely a somewhat stolid historical piece.However, now Wayne opens his mouth, and any hopes the movie had are instantly obliterated.

If you were to read out loud all the quoted Temujin dialogue in this review in your best/worst John Wayne impression, leaning heavily on his trademark cadence (as distinctive in its way as William Shatner’s), you really wouldn’t be far off the mark.Wayne’s accent is so inappropriate for the character that it seems quite nearly insane.Take Kevin Costner’s grating Midwestern twang in Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves and multiply by a hundred.

This proves a rare and wonderful example of Giant Claw Syndrome, in which an otherwise average film is absolutely torpedoed by one incredibly inept element.In The Giant Claw, a run of the mill and otherwise just generally lame ’50s sci-fi meller is in one fateful moment utterly transformed into an instant comedy classic.

In that film, it was the first appearance of the film’s infamous space buzzard monster puppet.Here’s, it’s the first time Wayne speaks.What sets these flaws apart is that they are so immense that you never adjust to them.Here you nearly break out into laughter every single time Wayne utters a line.As the movie progresses, it plays like history’s longest and most elaborately produced one-joke Saturday Night Live sketch.

Anyway, Temujin rides up and confronts the caravan’s owner, Merkit chieftain Targutai.Although no competition for the monumentally laughable quality of his voice, Wayne’s look is pretty risible as well.He wears a sleeveless fleece-trimmed tunic and sporty fur cap, and for whatever reason currently rides with a hooded falcon on his arm.

Temujin rides up to the palanquin, where Targutai is currently stationed.”By whose leave do you cross my lands?” Temujin challenges, the ‘pilgrim’ implicit.As noted, this is Wayne’s first line, and it doesn’t bode well.”A chief’s lands are those he can hold with arms,” Targutai sneers, because he’s the sort of character who is always either sneering or cowering in fear.”The Merkit chief comes to challenge them?” Temujin booms.Such dialogue, of course, is meant to establish everyone’s faction, as if the audience would bother to follow all this.

For all his bluster, Targutai is all hat and no yak when it comes to actually standing up to Temujin.That remains true even when Temujin’s gaze (and the camera) lazily roams its way up Bortai’s slinky reposed body.Bortai returns his stare with chilly contempt, but needless to say, a gleam of approval lights her eyes as she looks upon the muy macho Mongol chief.Lest we fail to apprehend this, however, the film’s Love Theme plays in the background to clue us in.

Targutai naturally avoids conflict, while expositoring about how the wondrously fair—in more ways than one—Bortai is to become his third wife.Presumably such polygamous antics drew disapproving tsking from ’50s audiences.Unsurprisingly, when Temujin later takes Bortai as his mate (oops, sorry), there’s never an indication that he’s even met another woman, much less made one his spouse.As you may have gathered, historical accuracy is not the film’s strong suit.

Hearing via another clunky line of dialogue that Bortai is a Tartar princess, Temujin responds, “I share your taste in women, Targutai…but not in blood.”He means lineage, of course, and refers to the fact that Tartars are the Mongol’s sworn enemies.Indeed, as we quickly learn, Bortai’s father Kumlek was the very fellow who slew Yesugai, Temujin’s father.Yep, its Ye Olde Romeo and Juliet deal.In any case, Temujin belays his harsh words by giving her a rakish smile before riding off.

Having now looked upon a Real Man [cue reply of Love Theme], Bortai naturally responds to her less rugged prospective husband with acid contempt.”For much less, my father would have slain him,” she sneers.Targutai tries to pass off his reticence to challenge Temujin as prudence rather than cowardice.”I decline violence lest I imperil you,” he weakly asserts.Needless to say, Bortai ain’t buying.Angered, Targutai spurs away and calls for the caravan to resume its journey.

However, he quickly returns to Bortai’s side to again press his case.”I suspect Temujin had men concealed nearby and sought to provoke me,” he explains.”By such tricks does he live since the death of his father Yesugai.”Bortai remains unimpressed, judging Targutai’s lack of action against the deeds of her father, the man who scattered the Mongol tribes in the first place.

Targutai agrees that the Mongols are now no more dangerous then “lice on a fat gelding.” (Because that’s how they talked back in Ye Olden Days.)”Yet still you dare not brave Temujin!” Bortai hotly rebukes.Targutai again rides away in anger, this time impotently whipping a servant to vent his ire.

Targutai’s fears are not unwarranted, however.Standing upon a nearby hill, Temujin and Jamuga study the caravan.Temujin is all for raiding it, but Jamuga suggests caution.This is when Temujin gives the “there are moments for wisdom” spiel quoted above.His decision made, the two turn and return to their village. This proves a quiet, peaceful, clean and orderly community, inhabited by contented folks both well fed and clothed.You know, just as you’d imagine.

Here we meet Kasar, as played by William “Cannon” Conrad.Although sporting the rotund frame he remains perhaps best known for (along with that booming gravelly voice of his), Conrad’s beefy form here seems more muscle than fat.And indeed, Kasar is the village strongman, as indicated when he bends a large iron bar around his own torso.Lacking Wayne’s tanned hide (not to mention star status) or Pedro Armendariz’ naturally swarthy complexion, they resorted to skin dye to make Conrad a nut brown.The stuff clearly ran off as the actor sweated, however, so that the dye job is seldom as even as they undoubtedly hoped.

Like many such strongman characters, Kasar is childishly impulsive, overly exuberant and always craving either japes or action.Thus he and the more thoughtful and cautious Jamuga symbolically bracket Temujin, the central character who lacks the extremes of both their gifts, yet otherwise combines their respective strengths in one package.Kirk, Spock and McCoy are another such triad.And then there’s Doc Savage, of course, who was so awesome that he combined (and in his case, probably topped) the traits of five freakishly talented sidekicks.

Kasar is naturally tickled pink—and as noted, trickled pink—to hear that Temujin is planning a raid.Pausing only to toss the village ironsmith into his own cooling pool, Kasar trots off to fetch his war gear.Meanwhile, Jamuga hands off a dead gazelle and orders its meat to be shared among the men.Because that’s just the way the Mongols rolled.They also no doubt had universal healthcare and 100% literacy.

Next we meet Temujin’s mother, Hunlun.She is played by Agnes Moorehead, best known as Endora on Bewitched.Here, however, between a costume that only leaves her face showing, and make-up meant to both darken her skin and increase her apparent age,* she is nearly unrecognizable.This trait is further enhanced by the ‘old people’ voice and gait she adopts.

[*Actually, Ms. Moorehead was 56 at the time of filming.So had Hunlun reached such an age in her era, she would have no doubt been similarly withered and indeed considered quite ancient.On the other hand, she was also only seven years older than the man playing her son.]

Soon Temujin has assembled his horsemen, and they wait in ambush until the caravan reaches the exact right spot.Kasar inevitably thirsts to start things, and moreover envisions a quick victory from their bowmen.Temujin nixes that idea, though, as he primarily seeks to capture an unharmed Bortai.

Meanwhile, his band is unnerved to learn they are attacking Targutai, chief of the more numerous (in the big picture) Merkits.Temujin naturally scorns their fears, and disdainfully ups the ante by noting that the woman he plans to seize is a princess of the even more powerful Tartars.”This raid may reap us more grief than spoils!” one underling grouses.

Temujin then plays to their egos.”Are you women, that you tremble before a force half your number?”(Needless to say, that isn’t really the issue, since they fear massive retaliation later, not the raid at hand.)”You fear the Merkit’s revenge?” he continues.”I seek it.Let him who shrinks from it say so and be gone.There is no room in my tents for those who fear, or question my orders.”Not exactly the St. Crispin’s Day speech, but it does the job.So off they go.

The raid commences (and we see the same clip of Temujin’s thundering horsemen that we saw earlier during the credits) as Targutai prepares as best he can.His main defense is a small covered wagon with maybe half a dozen bowmen inside it.Why bowmen inside a wagon are better than bowmen stationed outside remains unanswered.In any case, they manage to unleash a volley that cuts down about an equal number of Temujin’s party, which seems inordinately efficient.

As the Mongols near the caravan, Targutai sends his own forces out to meet them.The groups come together, swords clash, guys fall from horses and are dragged behind them, etc.It’s pretty much your standard melee.One thing that’s sure to disturb modern audiences is that one of the filmmaker tricks they have already employed twice is to ‘dramatically’ trip horses, perhaps with a wire.Presumably this will reoccur with some regularity, and is sure to provoke wincing from many viewers.

When another Mongol flanking force is sighted, Targutai grabs a second horse and tries to convince Bortai to flee with him.Let me guess:She’ll contemptuously refuse to run from mere Mongol curs, then curse her would-be husband’s cowardice as he cravenly decides to race off without her.Let’s restart the action:

Targutai:”We flee!”
Bortai:”From a pack of lice?!”
Targutai:”Make haste, lest I leave you!”
Bortai, sneering:”Go, my gallant suitor!”

I know, it’s like I’m friggin’ Nostradamus over here.

Temujin dispatches a foe, and then turns his gaze towards Bortai’s palanquin. Seeing this, Targutai indeed decides that discretion is the better of valor and hies his ass out of Dodge.Temujin rides after him with a spear. However, because he’s too much of a Fair Play Mongol—you know the kind—he naturally refuses to slay so spineless a foe.Instead he jabs him in the ass, knocks him from his horse, whacks off his hat and just generally taunts him.He does, however, stop short of giving him a wedgie and a Wet Willie.

He then shepherds Targutai back to Bortai, having much fun at his foe’s expense along the way.Once they are at the palanquin, a jovial Temujin asks Bortai what she’d have done with “her hero.”Needles to say, Bortai isn’t the least bit cowed.”What does the jackal do with the rabbit?” she answers.

Having proved his point, Temujin sends Targutai on his way.As an added note of humiliation, Temujin tears away Bortai’s dress (an act met with a burst of the movie’s Love Theme!) and tosses it to Targutai as a consolation prize.As Bortai scrambles for a blanket with which to cover herself, the other Mongols respectfully look away from her nakedness.(!!)Which is, by the way, totally historically accurate.As is, I’m sure, the lack of slaughter or rape now that the Mongols have captured the caravan.

Reactions to Targutai’s dismissal are mixed.Jamuga warns “The wounded beast is more dangerous then the whole.”Temujin laughs, presumably because it’s waaaay too early in the movie for him to kill the villain.”I have no fear of Targutai, wounded or whole,” Temujin replies.”Here’s the one I must fear,” he continues, indicating Bortai.I hear you, buddy!The old ball and chain, eh?

Unsurprisingly, Bortai proves gamer then her erstwhile fiancée.She informs Temujin of her identity, and he narrows his eyes at the mention of the man who killed his father.She defiantly promises more of the same once her pop learns of Temujin’s actions.Mulling things over, he orders his men to return to camp.

Back home, Temujin orders Jamuga to “see to the sharing of the booty.”As he’s looming over Bortai’s palanquin at this point, the line is sure to draw a laugh from modern viewers.Even Jamuga seems in on the joke, since he archly replies, “All [of it]?”Not that particular booty, I guess, since Temujin instead orders her tent placed next to his.

By the way, the egalitarian sharing of all resources and profits among Mongol tribes?Totally historically accurate.

Hunlun comes over to inspect the booty (Ha! It’s still funny), and admits that her son has snagged the goods this time.Her pleasure turns to dismay, however, when she learns who Bortai is.”Spawn of evil!” she hisses.Seems she’s not as ready to overlook the “her father killed my husband” thing as Temujin is the “her father killed my father” thing.Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

That night there’s a feast, attended by people wearing oddly clean and colorful clothes and goofy fur hats and fake mustaches and wigs and lots of body dye.There’s also a band in period togs playing drums and loots and such, because ‘spectacle’ movies always had to have music scenes and dancing girls.I guess it was a union rule.This band has a female lead singer who sings a lachrymose ballad.No dancing girls yet, although I bet we see some later.

Everyone is just quietly hanging out and chilling and partaking of the plentiful roasted meat and wine, which is all totally historically accurate.Meanwhile, Bortai is seated next to Temujin by a fire, and she’s all “I’m not even deigning to notice you.”Burn! Take that, Temujin!

Suddenly the band breaks out with a livelier number.Although we don’t get any dancing girls (yet), we do cut to a shirtless and much dyed Lee Van Cleef (!) who jumps up and does a little jig.From the evidence presented, we pretty much figure out why you don’t see Lee Van Cleef dance in many of his movies.In any case, he’s playing Chepei, just for further reference.If Mad Magazine parodied this movie, they’d probably call his analogue “Cowpie.”Man, I don’t know even know why I bother with this site.I can’t compete with material like that.

Kasar decides he’d rather see Bortai dance, and the rest of the men shout their approval.”I do not dance for jackals,” she retorts.Sweetie, you already used ‘jackal’ earlier.Try to mix your insults up a bit, ‘kay?Nobody likes a One-Note Suzie.Anyway, Temujin decides that she won’t dance for them, but she will dance for him.Then he sweeps her into his arms and carries her into his yurt.

Inside he pulls her close.You know, I think maybe he meant she would ‘dance’ for him in more of a figurative sense.Before they get to business, though, he avers, “Know this, woman…I take you for wife!”Because Mongols didn’t engage in dirty stuff unless it was as part of a long-term, committed relationship.That’s just how they rolled, and it’s totally historically accurate.*

[*Not to mention that Temujin married Börte—not Bortai—when he was 16 or so.Wayne was 49 when he made this movie.Oh, and Temujin’s marriage to Börte was an arranged one; she was the daughter of the chieftain of a friendly village.So, yes, that Romeo and Juliet stuff is total crap.

Börte was later kidnapped by a Merkit tribe and rescued by Temujin.That’s right, pretty much the opposite of what happens here.In any case, said rescue is generally considered one of the early turning points in Temujin’s life.Also, while Börte remained Temujin’s primary wife and eventually his empress, he did marry other woman as well.Needless to say, this goes unmentioned here.]

Bortai spits at him, and when that doesn’t work, tries the dead fish routine.”Is Temujin so wanting for a woman,” she sneers (hey, I can’t help it, half of what she does is sneering), “that he will quench his fire with ice?”Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how people talked back then.No way would she be yelling, “Get your hands off me, you f*****, I’ll cut your f****** b***** off!”

He pauses at her well-aimed riposte, however.”You had no love for Targutai,” he muses.”This I’d swear.”Well, then, who else could she want to bed?It’s only you guys, right?Bortai sees the flaw in his logic, too.”So I must be overwhelmed by Temujin?” she sneers (see previous note).”Flattered by his drunken ardor, returning kiss for kiss?”Temujin looks honestly, not to mention stupidly, perplexed by her reaction.At this I was kind of hoping for a Sextette-ish duet of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?”

Don’t you want me, Bortai?Don’t you want me, oh.
Don’t you want me, Bortai?Don’t you want me, oh

I was Princess of the Tartars in a palanquin,
that much is true.
But even then I knew I find a much better mate,
either with or without you….

Bortai basically promises that she’s just going to lie there and think of Britain.Well, he said he was taking her for wife, and now he’s gotten an authentic taste of married life.Rimshot! Still, her ploy works.An irate Temujin calls for a guard to take her back to her tent.

Later that night, Bortai’s slave attendant steals into Jamuga’s yurt.She wakes him with a request that he attend her mistress.It really seems less than a good idea to go to the tent of his chieftain’s squeeze in the middle of the night, but what do I know?

We cut to Bortai’s yurt. This is its hilariously huge and lushly furnished, like a gigantic New York City loft apartment on a TV sitcom.Sure enough, she quickly puts on the vamp on Jamuga.Man, I really don’t see any upside for him in this situation.So he’s all “Pu-leeze, bitch.”Well, actually, he says, “Suppose, having taken your favors, I refuse favor you seek?”

He reveals that he is in fact tempted to let her go, but only because she’s trouble on a stick.”You will bring sorrow between me and him, and disaster upon his people!” he predicts.Not to mention boredom upon the audience.In the end, though, even Jamuga’s fears won’t work for her.”I cannot betray him,” he declares, “even for his own good!”Thanks for nothing, dude.

In reply—and gee, who could have seen this coming—she says that if he doesn’t do what she wants she’ll call out and have him caught in her yurt here in the middle of the night.Oh, yeah!The situation is kind of compromising, at that.And remember, Jamuga’s the brains of this operation.Yeesh.

He responds by beginning to strangle her for her incredibly unforeseeable treachery. However, the issue is quickly rendered moot.Targutai and some men begin raiding the apparently unguarded camp (!!).You get your standard village raid stuff; tents set on fire (not too many, though, those things are expensive), stampeding horses, senseless slaughter.You know the kind.

Targutai again proves that he’s not cut out for this warrior thing.He attempts to harry the just awakened Temujin by sitting astride his horse outside his foe’s sizable yurt and repeatedly stabbing his spear though the flapped entryway.Boy, if Temujin were occupying the 8% of the interior space the thrusting spear reaches he’d be screwed.

Our Hero defeats this devilish ploy, however, by going to another spot of the yurt and slicing his way through the hide wall.Brilliant!Who else could have thought of such an amazing tactic, saving in the process a life that surely otherwise would have been forfeit, as least were he instead to have walked forward into his enemy’s weapon range?

Freed from his tent, Temujin cries out a challenge to his adversary.The horse riding Targutai charges him, but Temujin leaps away and snaps his enemy’s spear in half as he does so.Then Our Hero rolls to his feet with the business end and heaves it at his foe, impaling him.In fact, he hits his enemy so hard that not only Targutai falls to the ground, but his horse does a flip under him. (??)I’m actually not surprised Targutai took an exit so soon in the movie.The guy was such a yutz that there was no way he could possibly have been the main villain.I’m guessing Kumlek will be assuming that role.

Temujin’s smug smile turns upside down, however, when he spies Jamuga emerging from Bortai’s yurt.However, Jamuga soon proves his loyalty anew.He jumps in front of another attacking horseman, saving Temujin’s life by knocking the guy’s horse over.Yes, really.Horses go down easier in this movie than Foster Brooks with an inner ear infection.

Bortai takes advantage of the situation to run off, but Temujin uprights the horse and rides in pursuit.He scoops the running woman up into the saddle, which might be (a bit) more impressive if the lighting were good enough that we could see much.I think we’re talking bad day-for-night processing here, but in any case it’s like trying to watch a movie with sunglasses on.It certainly isn’t doing this purportedly exciting action scene any favors.

Temujin is spotted—how, I don’t know—by the Merkits and rides off with them in pursuit.Being as cunning as he is doughty, he jumps off his horse, sends it on its way, and shoves himself and Bortai into a tight crevice until the Merkits ride past.At this the Love Theme kicks in again, I guess because Bortai now feels Temujin’s manly body against her.She struggles against his advances a bit, but of course it’s all pretty pro forma and she soon passionately acquiesces.You know, I’m beginning to suspect this script wasn’t written by Gloria Steinem.


  • Sardu

    ensconced upon a yak-drawn palanquin

    It may be years before I work that line into a general conversation but as God is my witness I shall do so.

    Ken, you knocked it out of the park again. An honest, insightful review that points out all the myriad ineptitudes of this ill-conceived project while always maintaining an appropriate empathy for it at the same time- that’s a hard line to walk. I love this movie even though I’m always painfully aware I’m laughing squarely *at* it and not *with* it. But Wayne is Da Man no matter what.

  • Sandra

    Well, NEITHER of my comments made it. Let’s start again: You say “she’s just going to lie there and think of Britain”. Shouldn’t that be “think of Mongolia”? Moving on, You like MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE? I found it ludicrous, because the cast are all much too old for their parts, to the extent that, in the flashback to when they were ‘young’ they already look eligible for the Old
    Age Pension. Plus all the exteriors were obviously filmed on a soundstage. The basic script isn’t bad, if they had cast actors about thirty years younger. Too bad nobody makes westerns, because its one movie that would benefit from a remake. Now let’s hope this posts.

  • Sandra — The flaws you detect in Valance are intentional, meant to suggest that even Stewart’s ‘real’ telling of events is still a story. I think you’ll find many people consider the film one of the great westerns.

  • Blackadder

    John Wayne was a fairly good actor, but he was a GREAT movie star. They just don’t make them like the Duke anymore.

  • fish eye no miko

    A few things:

    “c’mon, dancing bear!”

    It’s a Godless dancing machine!

    Heh-huh… Wang…

    “One thing that’s sure to disturb modern audiences is that one of the filmmaker tricks they have already employed twice is to ‘dramatically’ trip horses”

    The guys who did MST riffed a few films under the name “The Film Crew” One of those they did, The Giant of Marathon, used this same technique. During one of the battle scenes, one of the guy commented, “No horses weren’t harmed during the making of this movie…”

  • roger h

    I saw this movie during a short run on I think HBO back when I was a teenager in the late seventies when I watch bad movies unironically and even then I was shocked by the mis-casting and especially the trip wires on the horses. I always told people that Plan 9 from Outer Space had nothing on The Conqueror when you considered the budget differences.

    It is funny you mentioned Brando for the lead since Brando later had his chance to embarrass himself playing Asian in The Teahouse of the August Moon.

    (note to Sandra, forget the old pros in “Valence”, watch the film for Lee Marvin as Liberty, just awesome.)

  • John Nowak

    >Börte was later kidnapped by a Merkit tribe and rescued by Temujin. That’s right, pretty much the opposite of what happens here.

    And this is why I will never understand Hollywood.

    Wouldn’t showing that be as good, if not better, than making up stuff with Temujin kidnapping her? If nothing else, it makes Temujin more sympathetic.

    I can understand playing with history to make a better story [although I don’t like it] but why play with history if the story ends up being no better than what actually happened?

  • Zandor Vorkov

    I’ve made it to the first video and … holy cow. It really is as funny as Ken makes it out to be. I can’t believe it. I never thought a movie without a cheesy monster could be so damn hilarious.

  • Ericb

    For a movie called “The Conquerer” there’s precious little conquering going on. Its like making a movie about General Patton and focusing on his wedding and honeymoon trip.

  • Eric, you’re missing the point. He’s the Conqueror of her heart, that’s the real story.

  • Sandy Petersen

    Hey, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” can DO NO WRONG. It is the best western ever and I will stick up for it under any circumstances.

  • Ericb

    They should do a remake of this with Steven Seagal in the title role.

  • Constant Reader

    Why does so much of the beginning of this article sound familiar? Oh yeah…

    Nice job of plagiarizing a 24 year old article, Ken. Or should I say, Cecil?

  • dangermom

    Hm. Some of this text looks a little familiar: Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?

    I’m disappointed, Ken; all you had to do was attribute the text. I’ve always enjoyed your reviews and this really puts a downer on the whole thing, don’t you think?

  • Uhm, OK.

    I wrote that intro back in 2002, when I first started reviewing the movie. I don’t remembering working from that article, although I guess I may have. I do remember cribbing from the Medved book, though, which I referenced. Anyway, thanks for the link.

  • The Rev. D.D.

    I envy people whose lives are so idyllic and worry-free that they can afford to OMG TEH DRAMA over what I can only assume is unintentional plagarism. You’d think they’d give you the benefit of the doubt here, instead of “OMFG YOU RUINED EVERYTHING YOU PLAGARIZING BASTARD” and lining up, stones in hand.

    With fans like that, who needs the liberal media, eh Ken?

  • Pip

    Well, Constant Reader, you get what you pay for.

    “I didn’t pay anything.”

    Yeppers. Can you dig it?

  • sandra

    Okay , Ken, make it “Lie back and think of Tartary”, Bortai’s homeland – land of the red-haired, fair-skinned, Caucasian nomads. Actually, there WERE people like that, in China. They have found mummies. The Chinese are embarassed by them. I’m defineitely NOT a fan of John Wayne, but I recently watched HONDO, because I had seen it when I was a child, and remembered it being a good movie. It is. One of Wayne’s best. Too bad you don’t review GOOD movies.

  • Austexchili

    The fallout causing the cancers must be considered. So should the fact that everybody smoked like a chimney in those days, which is kinda like putting an outboard motor on a raft when you are going to shoot the rapids.

  • colagirl

    Read this before, dropped back by to look something up again. I wanted to say while I’m here, I was always somewhat reflexively anti-John Wayne’s acting (without, I admit, having seen much of his work) but your defense of him has caused me to reconsider, and after watching several of his movies, I’m starting to see his merits. I’m surprised to see how often he plays characters that are dark or at least flawed, and I’m not ashamed to say his performance in “The Shootist” moved me to tears. I’d seen “The Searchers” a long time ago and don’t remember much about it, but will rewatch again soon.

  • Ken_Begg

    High praise! Heck, getting someone just to watch some old movies is pretty satisfying.

    I think one problem, depending on your age, is that not too long ago the Wayne films that mostly played on TV were from his later, taking-it-easy period. That was later in her career when he mostly put ambition aside and just churned out fun but fluffy films for his fans. Sort of like Robert DeNiro’s been doing for 20 years or more now.

    As you noted, he often played dark characters. Even Sean in The Quiet Man is haunted by his past. If you see any of his other films that you like, please check back in.

  • colagirl

    Wanted to add, another film of his that really made an impression was Red River. I was very surprised by the scene between Wayne and Joanne Dru, the dance hall girl, where he talks about his desire for a son — that seemed pretty heavy stuff for the late ’40s / early ’50s.

  • colagirl

    And honestly, a lot of old movies are better than so much of the modern dreck turned out today. Maybe it’s just that the best ones have stood the test of time, while the mediocre ones have sunk out of sight.

  • Ken_Begg

    I think filmmakers rely too much on the technology now. Simple storytelling often goes out the window in favor of spectacle. That can be fun occasionally, but it’s a drag on a regular basis.

  • Ken_Begg

    Yes, Red River is one of the Duke’s half dozen truly great movies.