The Conqueror (1956): Page 2

Continued from page 1….

The following day Temujin and Bortai return to camp and survey the damage. This frankly doesn’t look all that bad, but anyway. I mean, yeah, in real life possessions would have been very hard to replace back then, so even minor damage hurt a lot. However, since the place looks like a movie set, it’s hard to get very worked up about it.

Even so, Bortai looks upon the (I guess) dispossessed villagers and begins to get an inkling that maybe her dad’s war against the Mongols isn’t so great. Because, you know, left to themselves the Mongol were extremely peaceful people. That’s totally historically accurate.

[And yes, I’m expecting notes from Carl Fink and Sandy Petersen explaining why I’ve been wrong to laugh at some of what I perceive to be the film’s lack of historical accuracy. Fire away, gentlemen.]

Hunlun emerges from her still extant yurt and grimly beholds Bortai’s continued presence. For his part, Temujin steps down from his horse and raises a trampled tribal banner. He also spies the body of a dead panther, which (I guess) had been a sort of village mascot. He demands to know why it’s being left there, and Hunlun explains that it’s an omen. She then chastises him for allowing his own people to die because of his ho. Unsurprisingly, Temujin’s reply is along the lines of, “Whatever.”

Eventually one of the men gives Temujin some lip, and the fearsome Mongol warriors response is to…paste the guy one with a haymaker. “I dealt gently with this oaf,” Temujin declares. Given the circumstances, yeah, I’d say so. Then he deals with the men who had purportedly been on guard the previous night. “The Merkits surprised us,” one explains, and goes on to explain it was probably because they were so drunk. (!!) Yes, that’s pretty much exactly what I’d tell my warrior chieftain. Temujin orders them hanged. Cue music blare.

Then he informs the village that he has “taken the Tartar woman for wife!” [Love Theme.] Gasps, etc. Hunlun tells him this can’t be, blah blah. Man, this scene is dull. The pace is so slow it’s like they filmed a dress rehearsal and decided, what the hell, it was good enough.

Temujin returns to his yurt and calls for Jamuga. (There was a time in my life when I didn’t expect to type sentences like that.) I can only assume it’s because he saw him leaving Bortai’s yurt the previous night. Good grief, what the hell is going on here? This movie’s about friggin’ Genghis Khan. This is a guy who united most of a continent and forged one of the greatest empires in human history. Is this soap opera crap really the best material they could come up with? Sheesh.

Oops, my bad. To be fair, they do indeed start getting into such stuff here. (And sadly manage to make it was boring as the soap elements.) Temujin reveals his plan to destroy the Tartars once and for all, which he plans to do via an alliance with “the forces of Wang Khan.” He then briefly explains for our presumed benefit that this is his deceased father’s blood brother. It’s like this movie was written by somebody who ‘researched’ Genghis Khan by reading both Khan’s entry in the World Book encyclopedia and an appropriate Classics Illustrated comic book, and then figured it was enough to drop the occasional historical name into the script here and there.

Jamuga suggest that Temujin has “lost his wits” if he expects help from the self-interested Wang Khan. Temujin has a super-clever plan, however: he’ll lie and tell Wang Khan that the Tartars are planning to invade Wang’s territory. Presumably he’ll say his source is ‘a guy I met‘ whose ‘brother-in-law, like, totally knows the guy who is planning the attack.’ Oh, and he also intends to waylay, and presumably kill, the investigating spies Wang Khan is sure to send out. He’ll then blame this on the Tartars.

Anyway, Temujin plans to go to Wang himself, and leave Jamuga behind to prepare for his return. This returns the focus to Bortai. Unaware that Temujin saw him, Jamuga confesses his semi-indiscretion the night before and explicates the full story. This clears him, of course. Still, the thought of her remaining in camp during Temujin’s absence makes Jamuga nervous.

Jamuga: “There is no limit to her perfidy!”
Temujin: “She is a woman, Jamuga! Much woman! Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?”

Ha! Tell it brother! High five! Anyway, Temujin relieves Jamuga’s mind by saying he’ll be taking her with him.

At this point we’re about 35 minutes in, with about an hour and a quarter left to go. This is where the film proves rather more problematic than The Giant Claw, which runs a far pithier 75 minutes. Wayne’s performance and the rococo dialogue continue to astound, but he’s not always on screen and the funnier lines come in batches. Meanwhile, the incessantly two-dimensional acting calls to mind a cheapie ‘Abbott & Costello in foreign lands‘ picture more than a purportedly serious, star-studded and expensive would-be epic. At first this is amusing, but eventually it eventually begins to grate.

In any case, we now enter familiar territory. Having established our main characters and storyline, we now reach the Various Adventures stage of thing, meant to run out the clock until it’s time for the inevitable climatic battle which sees Temujin on the road to becoming Genghis Khan. When a film is well made, the middle act is the heart of things. When it’s not, it’s merely a bunch of time-wasting, water-treading junk meant to pad out the clock before they can wrap things up.

The Conqueror clearly falls into the second category. As such I’m going to get a little less detail oriented as I describe certain sections of the film, as frankly there are fewer details worth talking about. In other words, we’re at the point of things where watching the film becomes a bit of a chore.

The next morning Temujin heads off to travel to Urga, Wang Khan’s city. He first sends some men out to watch the plain, however, and orders them to kill anyone they suspect is one of Wang Khan’s spies sent to investigate Temujin’s story.

That evening Temujin calls a halt and orders their camp put up. Bortai asks why there’s no separate tent for her, and he replies she’ll sleep in his. Then she learns that he has assumed possession of her erstwhile dowry from Targutai, rich furs that he intends to present to Wang as a gift. She’ll have no need of furs, he promises:

Temujin: “By night, my warmth, and for adornment by day, I shall heap precious stones on you, and rare ornaments.”
Bortai: “I want no more your stolen treasure than your vile warmth, Mongol!”

He turns his back on her, and she draws a handy sword. Temujin is warned by one of his men and bends under her strike. She overswings and topples to the ground, drawing the laughter of the camp. Temujin grabs her up, and noting, “You’re beautiful in your wrath”, carries her into his tent. [Love Theme.] Inside he puts her down, and notes, “Were Wang younger and more nimble at dodging swords, I might give you to him and keep the furs!” Ha! He’s only joshing, though.

Once again, and for all her purportedly murderous rage, Bortai melts once Temujin puts the mack on her. Women just can’t resist a man who won’t take no for an answer. I mean, it’s all so romantic. We can tell, because the now booming Love Theme informs us so.

Even so, she makes him work for it. When Temujin promises “Your hatred will kindle into love,” she avers, “Before that day dawns, Mongol, the vultures will have feasted on your heart!” Irate at her intransigence, he slaps her. Then, awkwardly aware that he has violated the well-known Mongol social rules about not hitting lippy women—it’s totally historically accurate—he leaves.

Next we see the Mongol party enter the gated fortress city of Urga. In the courtyard of the palace, they come across Wang. Wang is entirely your standard one-time warlord who’s become fat, foolish and frivolous from years of ease and comfort. The archetype for this sort of fellow is the fatuous, toy-loving sultan from Michael Powell’s seminal The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Actor Thomas Gomez clearly studied the Sultan of that movie in order to, uh, emulate him here. Even so, he comes across more like an insanely rich Otis Campbell.

And wherever there’s a weak, foolish leader, there’s sure to be a calculating, sinister advisor standing in the shadows behind him. Here that role is filled by the imaginatively named Shaman, who is the only one in the picture for some reason to assay an Oriental accent.

As you’d expect given the general quality of the performances here, they go whole hog with this. Shaman thus sports an unabashedly comic opera Chinese accent of the Charlie Chan, Oh-so-solly school. As you might imagine, he also proves both wily and inscrutable. And to really shock the hell out of you, he’s played by a heavily made-up Caucasian actor, John Hoyt. Mr. Hoyt had a long and busy career, mostly playing heavies, since the 1940s. He is probably best known to (comparatively) modern audiences, however, for playing the loveable Grandpa on the ’80s sitcom Give Me a Break.

''Oh, so solly, gentremen, but policy stand.  No tickee, no shirtee.''

“Oh, so solly, gentremen.  But policy stand: no tickee, no shirtee!”

Wang is pleased to see his blood brother’s son, and rises to greet him. Temujin takes the opportunity to insult the still recalcitrant Bortai a bit, noting that he would make a present of her, but “Her nature’s as ugly as her body [is] fair.” I suppose maybe he’s trying to make her appear unattractive so as head off trouble should Wang start lusting after her, although that seems a bit subtle and sly for this particular movie. In any case, he instead presents Wang with Bortai’s betrothal furs.

Pleased with the gift, Wang calls for a feast. And you know what that means…dancing girls! (Told ya.) Indeed, because for some reason seemingly EVERY SINGLE MOVIE from that period set in an exotic land required a dancing girl scene, probably to inject a note of what used to be considered ‘sex’ into things. This proves no exception.

Indeed, we are, uh, treated to no less than four dances in a row, although they are at least fairly shorts ones (even if it doesn’t seem that way). And if you guess that Temujin and Wang are seated on a dais during this, and that we cut to them occasionally as they lean their heads together and nod their heads approvingly and stare lustfully at the spectacle, then you yourself are apparently now ready to direct a film like this one.

To my delight—because it didn’t require a lot of commentary—said dancing occupies the next five straight minutes of screentime.

The first dance is your standard group ballet number. The second features a woman in a nude bodysuit with strategically positioned lines of fringe and a weird tiered hat that makes her looks like a character from The Erotic World of Dr. Seuss. Then there’s a second group dance, and finally two helmeted women come out dressed like warriors and symbolically fight with the short swords they carry.

Man, this *new* Cat in the Hat is the greatest!

“Wow, this *new* Cat in the Hat is awesome!”

Temujin uses the dancing as the opportunity to get Bortai’s goat, as she’s clearly annoyed at not being automatically considered the hottest chick in the room. After the solo dancer is identified as a “woman of Samerkhan,” Wang notes “There are no finer dancers under the heavens.” Temujin agrees, and gives a sidelong glance at Bortai. “And without compare in the arts of love,” he adds. “After them, all other women are like a second pressing of the grape!”

Bortai takes all this in sullen silence, but is clearly steamed. When the sword dance ends, she stands and divests herself of her jacket, revealing a matching spangley halter top. She apparently seeks to show Temujin who’s hot and who’s not by performing her own dance. Picking up the war dancers’ swords, she slinks around and handles the swords like not exactly subtle phallic symbols as she gyrates her hips. The rest of the cast is mesmerized by her supposedly amazingly sultry dancing, but believe me, that’s some grade-A Informed Attributing going on right there.

Her real gambit is revealed, however, when she ends her dance by flinging a sword at Temujin. The weapon lands just short of its mark and imbeds in the table before him and Wang. The latter goes into a ‘comical’ tizzy at this brush with death, while Temujin merely has her escorted to bed. I have to say, I find it weird that Bortai couldn’t hit Temujin with a swung sword when his back was turned, yet nearly manages to peg him with a thrown one from twenty feet or more.

At this point Shaman decides to, you know, get things back to the plot and stuff. He asks about the “grave intelligence” Temujin says he has brought. This is the fairy story about the Tartars and the Merkits teaming up to attack Urga. Wang is naturally flustered to hear of this [he’s weak], and given the constrained parameters of his entirely rote nature, immediately seeks the opinion of Shaman on the matter [he’s foolish].

Now the question becomes what side Shaman will take, since he’s clearly the one actually running things. As a schemer, and despite his Fu Manchu accent and mannerisms, Shaman is thus the most film’s interesting character. Admittedly, that’s not saying a lot, but he’s the only one whose motives are ever in doubt. For all of Jamuga’s Informed Attributed trait as a great thinker, all he really does is urge caution on Temujin every once in a while. Although Shaman can sadly only be as intelligent as the guy writing him, at least he’s meant to be shifty. It’s something.

We’re still early in the intrigue portion of things, though. Temujin spins his tale, knowingly keeping his eye as much on Shaman as Wang. He ends by urging Wang to send his own spies to confirm his tale, knowing his men will capture and kill them. Shaman, for his part, decides to cast an augury, presumably because Wang would put great stock in such supernatural flummery [he’ s foolish].

We get a little ceremony involving the burning of a sheep’s shoulder blade and some silly chanting. Again, this is about as suspenseful as the film gets, because Shaman’s ‘casting’ will determine whether Temujin’s plot succeeds or fails. In the end, he avers that the spirits confirm Temujin’s story, to the Mongol’s evident relief. Wang puts his troops at Temujin’s command, who vows to destroy the Tartars and Merkits before they supposedly strike first. Shaman backs him to the hilt, and Wang accedes.

Now that he has Wang’s backing, Temujin prepares to leave Urga to round up the scattered Mongol tribes. As his party leaves at dawn, he is met at the gate by Shaman. “The rising sun never finds a servant of the heavens sleeping,” Shaman ah-sos. He then implies that he threw his weight behind Temujin because Wang has grown too weak to hold his throne. Noting that it’s only a matter of time before Wang falls to a younger, stronger Khan, he bows and bids Temujin, “I wish you well, Temujin Khan.”

Temujin nears his village to find plumes of smoke billowing from it. “Your tents burn well,” Bortai gleefully observes. Before they can do much to respond, his small party is attacked by a bunch of Tartar horsemen. Bortai takes the chance to ride off, and Temujin follows his, er, heart by chasing after her. However, he takes a Tartar arrow and goes down; joined, of course, by his horse. Wounded, Temujin is easily taken.

The Tartars and Mongols clash, the result mostly being many more upended horses. In the confusion, however, Temujin breaks free and seeks his escape. He nearly gets away on a horse, but (three guesses) it trips under him, the second to do so in as many minutes. Talk about unsafe at any speed. So he staggers off on foot and hides in some nearby scrub. There he finds a (patently fake) cave—mere yards from the battle it seems—and manages to remain there undetected.

That night Jamuga appears and finds his wounded chief. He tends to Temujin and informs him that Kumlek and his men have taken over the village. However, per Temujin’s instructions before he left, the Mongols were on alert. Thus most of his tribesmen escaped unharmed. Blah blah blah. As noted, with about an hour left to go, we’re just marking time here until the final battle. Having tended to Temujin as well as he can, Jamuga heads off to the village to (literally) rustle up some horses.

Once in camp, however, Jamuga declares himself openly. He is escorted to Kumlek (imagine Fred Mertz as an evil overlord), who is quickly established to be a dick as he is seen drunkenly choosing among the Mongol women for an unwilling bed partner. This is entirely different from Temujin doing the same with Bortai, you know, because she is his Great Passion.* Besides, whenever they’re together we hear the Love Theme. No Love Theme for Kumlek, no sir!

[*Dare one say…his Magnificent Obsession!]

Bortai is bewildered to see Jamuga in her father’s tent, and more amazed when he tells Kumlek he is willing to betray Temujin. Gasp! Is treachery afoot? Kumlek orders Jamuga taken away until morning. Bortai, however, warns that “The man lies, my father. He would die the slow death before betraying his blood brother.”

Bortai leaves and sees Jamuga being tied up outside, lest he cause mischief. She confronts him and he cannot speak his lie to her. “What is there in this Temujin that makes you love him so?” she demands. We, however, gaze godlike into her soul, and know she really seeks the answer from her own unruly heart. (Wow!) She orders him untied and taken to a guarded tent.

Late that night, the guard—that’s right, just the one—slips too close to the tent’s entrance and Jamuga jumps him. Grabbing a few horses (which miraculously keep their feet under them), he makes his escape. ‘Tis all a ruse, however, for Bortai has been keeping watch with some men, and they follow discretely after him.

At this point the film becomes increasing tiresome. To cut to the chase, Bortai’s men capture Temujin (he wanders out into the open for no good reason!). This occurs under circumstances that, for about the third time, make him suspect Jamuga’s loyalty. Temujin is put into a large wooden yoke* and made to wander feverishly (he’s still wounded) in Kumlek’s caravan—Bortai is seen to become increasingly uncomfortable with his treatment—and then later is kept yoked and tied to a line in Kumlek’s camp.

[*This is mounted across his shoulders with his tied arms spread to either side. The idea that they even possibly meant to portray Genghis Khan as a Christ figure makes me want to slap somebody.]

''That's right, your honor. I haven't been able to work since that horseman crashed into our caravan.''


“That’s right, your honor.  I haven’t been able to work ever since that horseman crashed into our caravan!”

Eventually Temujin manages to use his huge yoke to stave in the head of an unwatchful guard—earlier he was standing right in front of Kumlek, and I wondered why he didn’t do the same thing to his tormentor then—only to find himself confronted by a knife-wielding Bortai before he can free himself. After a bit of *cough* suspense, she uses it to cut him loose. [Love Theme] Big surprise there. And so is their mutual love *yawn* finally declared. Bortai holds him as her weakened lover collapses in her arms, before arranging for him to escape on a rare, non-collapsing horse.

Anyway, congrats, we just skipped over about ten friggin’ minutes of pointless stuff. On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to pass over some of the movie’s funniest dialogue. (And remember to ‘hear’ Temujin’s lines in John Wayne’s voice.)

A bloody but unbowed, if yet be-yoked, Temujin stands before a sneering, apparently triumphant Kumlek.
Temujin: “I grieve.”
Kumlek: “He grieves! Already the Mongol whelp whines! Ha, ha, ha!”
Temujin: “I grieve that I cannot salute you as I would. I am bereft of spit!”

The Tartar chief promises his captive the “slow death,” which is elucidated at great length for the edification of the audience.

Kumlek: “The slow death! Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces! And each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes, until they, too, will be plucked out as morsels for the vultures! Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
Temujin, defiant yet: “You do well, Kumlek! For while I have fingers to grasp a sword and eyes to see, your treacherous head is not safe on your shoulders, nor your daughter in her bed!”

Oh, and I almost forgot a part where we saw a small dancing bear, which should be noted because…well, c’mon, dancing bear!

Anyway, Bortai looks up to see her slave observing her hold the weakened Temujin in her arms. It’s OK, though, because slaves and servants in these things always seek to facilitate forbidden romances. “Deny not the heart!” intones the slave as Bortai tussles with her conscience.

As the two go to find Temujin a horse, Kumlek comes on the scene. However, all he finds is that his captive is gone, because Temujin has just crawled his way, that’s right, into some scrub about ten feet away. Good grief, these are the worst manhunters in human (not to mention cinema) history. Men are sent out to find him. Anyway, Temujin, who apparently recuperates faster than Wolverine, gets his hands on a spear and kills a couple of guards and off he goes.

Anyway, that was Largely Pointless Time-Wasting Episode Number One.

Temujin returns to his village (abandoned but conveniently not destroyed by the Tartars) to learn that they all thought him dead. “Believing me slain,” he asks in a dangerous tone, “whom did you make chief?” So, the Mongol society was democratic? Could be, I guess. Anyway, to our vast surprise the new leader is *gasp* Jamuga, who in case you forgot is once again under yet another cloud of suspicion.

Having already played this card a few times, you might think this was now leading somewhere. The real life Jamuga (or Jamuka, more like) did eventually become a rival of Genghis Khan, so you might think they were finally heading in the direction. But no, the whole thing more or less blows over as soon as the two stand face to face. Temujin looks into Jamuga’s eyes and says “I see no betrayal there,” and Jamuga says he didn’t betray him, and…that’s it. Wow, what a thrilling denouement that was. If you folks don’t mind, I’ll think I’ll take a break here to let my heart stop racing.
[Some time later]

With that mind-bogglingly exciting resolution behind us, it’s now time for our second time-wasting adventure. Even better, this one doesn’t even involve either of our two leads. Instead, Temujin sends Jamuga and Kasar to Urga to bring word of where Wang should send his troops. Because really, is there any doubt that cinema patrons bought tickets so they could thrill to the adventures of Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz and (at that point in time) radio star William Conrad? In the meantime, there’s another scene where Temujin declares his great love for Bortai. [Love Theme] Lest, I guess, we hadn’t gotten that yet.

Jamuga and Kasar arrive at Urga. And if that sentence doesn’t fill your heart with feverish anticipation, you must be made of stone. Long story short, for no apparent reason whatsoever, Shaman now seems determined to deny Temujin the use of Wang’s army. I guess maybe he wanted to set him Our Hero up for the big battle and then betray him so as to ensure his destruction. However, if so, they never even hint at it here. Instead, it actually seems as if he only does it because he’s a mysterious, inscrutable Chinaman, and hence has to get up to some treachery sooner or later.

Jamuga smells a rat. Impulsive Kasar suggest a quick escape, but Jamuga thinks they should bide their time. Beside, “They will have stopped us before we could reach the gates if we refuse to stay,” he adds. Then seconds later the door to their room is secured and they’re trapped.

Kasar uses his great strength to bend some window bars and Jamuga clambers through. However, before Kasar can squeeze his fat ass through the hole, an assassin casually walks up and stabs him in the back. Not the most dignified death ever, but there you go. At this, Jamuga hops over a fence and despite being inside the enemy stronghold, escapes with no problem. So he really did Kasar a favor by vetoing his “let’s split” suggestion.

As a great big fat guy myself, brother, I sympathize!

As a fellow great big fat guy, I completely sympathize!

There we go. Another almost ten minutes of running time disposed of.

But ah, ha! Surprise! There are yet more discursive antics to follow. Jamuga rides across the plain, rushing to inform Temujin of Wang/Shaman’s treachery. However, he is seen by a Tartar patrol and an extended horse chase ensues. There is one impressive stunt, where (supposedly) Jamuga rides down a long, very steep incline.

Eventually, though, he takes an arrow and is yet again captured. Boy, there’s a lot of capturing in this movie. In fact, now that I think about, pretty much the entire movie is capturing. Bortai gets captured, several times. Temujin gets captured. Kasar gets captured. Jamuga gets captured. If you like people being captured, then have I got a movie for you!

We cut to the war camp of the assembled Mongol tribes. Temujin is trying to keeps things under control, but the other chiefs are getting restless the longer Wang’s promised forces fail to materialize. Things look grim for the shaky alliance. In a very weird scene, Temujin goes to the top of a hill and screams to the heavens for his dead father’s intercession. “Send me men!” he implores. Given the film’s eventual box office take, he may have better asked him to send ticket-buyers.

His prayers are quickly answered, however, as Shaman appears in camp with a solution to his problems. Presumably (although again, this is guess work) Shaman made Wang hesitate to send his army to put Temujin on the spot, at which point Shaman would save the day and ensure the Mongol was in his debt. That’s why he arranged for assassins to kill Kasar and (nearly) Jamuga, to remove any witnesses to his actions. Or something. Whatever.

Sure enough, Shaman puts the whole thing on Wang, telling Temujin that the khan plots Temujin’s destruction. Shaman has a plan to save him, however. Shaman will return to Urga and open the gates to Temujin’s forces. The Mongols will then seize the city, depose Wang, and Temujin will take over Wang’s army to use as he wills.

They really needed to work on this script longer. Up ’til now they’ve had to drag things out and waste all sorts of time. Yet now there’s only twenty minutes left for Temujin to seize Urga, discover Shaman’s treachery (oops, sorry), reap his vengeance on Kumlek (presumably via a big battle) and be reunited with Bortai. I mean, the entire film would have profited from such a torrid pace, but following its formally sluggish speed it all seems a bit rushed.

Lacking alternatives, Temujin opts to go with Shaman’s plan and away we go. Still, being cannier than Wang, Temujin arranges to have eyes kept on Shaman as the business progresses. Back at Urga, Shaman gets the gate opened as promised and the few and unprepared guards are quickly dispatched. Temujin then signals his men with a flaming arrow and his main force enters the city.

Meanwhile, Shaman sneaks away to finish off the trusting Wang before Temujin may speak with him. He knives him, but does so in a conveniently half-assed manner. This allows the barely alive Wang to expose Shaman’s machination to Temujin when the latter arrives on the scene to reap revenge for Wang’s supposed perfidy. The results are about what you’d think, and exit Shaman. It’s kind of interesting, though, how the film doesn’t seem to notice that the hero’s actions are just as dodgy as those of the various villains. But then, he doesn’t sport a phony baloney Chinee accent.

There’s another lame and difficult to make out melee happening out in the courtyard. Temujin halts it with a conveniently at hand gong. He announces that Wang is dead and he is now in charge, and pretty much everybody just goes along with it. It’s that easy, I guess. It’s like capturing a flag in Stratego; that’s it, you won.

The next morning the court of Urga appears and swears allegiance to Temujin. Not only that, but they greet his proclamation that they are to war against the Tartars with great enthusiasm. Again, it’s just that easy.

Back to Jamuga, who is currently back in Kumlek’s camp. Looking rather worse for wear, he’s currently tied to the ground and enduring Chinese Water Torture. Meanwhile, spears are fixed just a tad from his face so that he dare not move his head even an inch. Even so, Jamuga refuses to talk even after three days of such treatment, rousing dismay from his captors.

Bortai intercedes with her father and says that her soft woman’s wiles will break him where their torture hasn’t. Disgusted, Kumlek agrees, and has the battered Jamuga brought to her tent. When next seen Jamuga is looking markedly better, as if someone had simply wiped off all his bruises with a wet cloth. *ahem*

Anyhoo, all Bortai really wants to know is whether Temujin, the man she now freely admits she loves, yet lives. Jamuga at first thinks this a trick, but then eventually realizes that the movie is finally almost over. Also, the Love Theme is playing on the soundtrack. For no apparent reason, though, the scene runs a good long longer than it needs to, and is extremely mawkish to boot. “He has a quality of spirit that commands love…” a reverent Jamuga muses. Yes, and this scene has a quality that commands my stomach to upchuck my last meal. Move on, please.

That night, and I swear this is what happens, Temujin’s men infiltrate the borders of the Tartar camp by putting horned headdresses on their horses and standing behind them as they are led into the camp’s cattle pasture. But hey, it works, so there you go.

Temujin fires the first arrows and silently dispatches the whole three guards. Really? Firing an arrow into a man’s gut is an instantly fatal wound? Boy, I’ve have thought the opposite, that the guy would take days to die and be screaming his head off the entire time. I guess that’s why I’m not a Mongol commando.

So Temujin rides into camp with a weirdly small number of his men and immediately starts yelling his head off for Bortai. [Love Theme] So much, I guess, for the stealth portion of the operation. She runs out to greet him, and then Temujin sees Jamuga leaving her tent for like the fifth time. That’s the charm, and he finally decides Jamuga’s a traitor. He rides at Jamuga and yells “Die! Die!” and waves his sword at him, and Jamuga just stands there stock still like he’s waiting for a bus. He doesn’t fall over dead, though, so I guess Temujin’s horse supposedly shied at the key moment or…something.

Before Temujin can take a second stab (ha, see what I did there?) at it, the Tartar’s warning gong is sounded. With bigger fish to fry, he scoops up Bortai and leaves Jamuga behind. At this Jamuga continues to just nonchalantly stand around in the open of the Tartar camp like a mildly pixilated Stan Laurel.

We’re finally down to the movie’s final scenes, and so we get the big climatic battle sequence. This even takes place in broad daylight so that we can actually see it. Temujin, now wearing a tin pot with an attached rear towel, passionately clenches with Bortai [Love Theme] before setting off to kill her father. I guess she’s given up being conflicted about that. And really, why would she be? He’s kind of a jerk.

They obviously saved up a lot of dough for this last battle, as there are scads of horsemen on both sides of things. A huge line of horsemen rides down a steep hill, which again has been a regular element on display here. I’m not saying it’s not tough to do, but I don’t think it’s as inherently exciting to watch as the director perhaps thought it was.

The two sides race forward, presumably towards one another. I’m not entirely sure, however, why each side started racing at top speed while they were still so far away from their opponents. Isn’t that why armies generally rested near the battle site and then arrayed themselves in peace before the actual fighting started? Meanwhile, the scene is directed in a rather unimaginative “put the camera here, have horses run past; move the camera there, have horses run past; repeat” fashion. Again, it’s all kind of impressive because of the sheer scale of things, yet still without really being at all captivating, which is kind of missing the point.

Eventually the two war parties come together and there’s again your standard melee. Guys mill around on their horses and carefully clash their weapons together. Scads of horses—and I mean literally dozens of them—continue to trip and fall to the ground, often for no apparent reason. Guys take swords and spears under the armpit and tumble over, presumably praying that they don’t get trampled by all the horses running around. Guys fall off their horses and get dragged behind them. Etc.

Temujin is in the thick of things, while we see Kumlek sitting in his pristine armor safely up on a hill. See, that again proves that Temujin is better. Anyhoo, Temujin eventually sees him up there and takes the battle to his father’s killer. Kumlek rides down to meet him, so now we are treated to guys riding down a steep hill while other guys ride up it. Wow, the choreographic imagination on display here knows no bounds.

Oops, my mistake, apparently they really feel the need to make Kumlek look bad. So it’s his men that ride down, while the Tartar leader cravenly attempts to gallop his way to safety. Needless to say, though, Temujin is on his trail and quickly overtakes him. However, as he catches up to his foe Kumlek slows down, which OF COURSE causes Temujin’s horse to fall over.

No biggie, though, as the blasé Temujin just stands up and plucks Kumlek off his horse. (Astoundingly, in the process Kumlek’s horse somehow manages to remain upright.) With the Tartar chief’s body lying safely under the range of the camera, we see Temujin swing down his dagger one time. Thus is the action brought to a rather anticlimactic close.

Next we see Temujin and Bortai holding court together as (I guess) various Tartar generals approach and bow before them. Then Jamuga appears. Bortai pleads for Temujin to wipe all suspicions from his mind. Temujin attempts to mend fences, but Jamuga calls shenanigans, noting that “the worm of distrust has entered” Temujin’s heart. I’ve half been expecting this, although part of my mind refused to wrap itself around this bald fact: They were setting up the real life rivalry between Temujin and Jamuga in case they made a sequel. To this!! Ye gods.

Or were they? For after being offered any boon he craves, Jamuga (after being the first to call him Genghis Khan) demands that Temujin allow him die a swift death. This seems to close off his returning in a sequel. Or does it? For after gaining a shocked and saddened Temujin’s permission, Jamuga just walks off alone into the distance. I guess they wanted it both ways, or something.

Anyhoo, the last shot is of Temujin as he leads an incredibly long trail of horsemen along a road. If this isn’t a special effect—and it doesn’t seem to be—then damn, that’s a lot of extras. Meanwhile, the voice of Jamuga provides a closing bit of narration:

And the great Khan made such conquests as were undreamed up by mortal men. Tribes of the Gobi flocked to his standard, and the farthest reaches of the desert trembled under the hooves of his hordes. At the feet of his Tartar woman, he laid all the riches of Cathay. For a hundred years the children of their loins ruled half the world.”

By the way, for years the dream project of Steven Seagal had been to star in a bio pic of Genghis Khan. Ah, what might have been. What might have been.


Unsurprisingly, I learned more about the Mongols from this note from Sandy Petersen than I did watching this film for two hours:

1)   Okay I admit the Mongols were not extremely peaceful people. In fact, they were one of the most warlike peoples in the history of the planet, as well as one of the best-skilled and trained. In their prime, the Mongols were able to maintain a sustained advance of around 10 km per day – this is the fastest in human history. To put it into perspective, that is faster than the German armored blitzkrieg in World War II. Horses > panzers I guess..”

2)       The nomadic warriors of Central Asia were, of course, not modern liberals, but they did have a fairly comprehensive social network. The chieftain ruled by the love and loyalty of his warriors, who made up almost all the tribe, and family connections were important. The concept of sharing a gazelle or a caravan’s booty amongst the group was not unreasonable. Everyone depended on everyone else for survival. Of course, it would be the chief who decided that it would be shared. A proper comparison would be this:

a.       Modern Conservative – You killed the gazelle, so you get its meat. Can I buy some? 

b.      Modern Liberal – it’s not fair for you to get all the gazelle’s meat. It must be shared equitably among power groups of which I approve.

c.       Ancient Mongol – “I’m the chief. I decide who gets the gazelle’s meat. You killed it, – I say you get the hindquarters. Jamugin and Kasar did well last raid – they get the forequarters. Give the rest to the starving old women. Any objections?” 

Anyway the idea behind the Mongol system was that the chieftain rewarded virtue and punished iniquity but really, since his power rested on the swords of his men, he had to keep them happy, so his decisions were not totally those of an autocrat. There is a reason the Mongols were so loyal. Eventually of course as they met with success after success they became spectacularly wealthy.

Just to clarify – I’m NOT saying Genghis Khan was a nice guy. For heaven’s sake, he boiled several of his wedding guests to death at the party. But if you were one of his people, you would probably have perceived him as a good ruler and leader. Just toe that line.

Indeed, it’s possible to view ALL of Genghis Khan’s epic life as a series of successful quests for vengeance. The idea that he would shrug aside the fact that Bortai’s dad killed his dad as of no import is impossible to accept. He would be likelier to fill her skinned belly with red ants.
The Mongols really didn’t lose a major scuffle until the battle of Ain Jalut  (1260) in the middle East, which is one of the great Lost Opportunities of history. The Mongol leader, Kitboga, was actually a Christian(!) and invited the Crusader states on the Levant to join his side. The Crusader states short-sightedly viewed the Mongols as just another invading nation and remained neutral. In the close-run fight, the Mamelukes and their allies (who enormously outnumbered the Mongols) barely pulled off a victory – with the Crusaders on his side, it’s likely Kitboga would have won – he nearly did anyway. Stalled in their battle, the Mongols settled down, pulled back north, and eventually many became Muslims themselves (in Afghanistan).

But … the mid-East COULD have been dominated by a Christian nation.”

Thanks, Sandy!


But wait, there’s more! Don’t miss Andrew Borntreger’s quite possibly pithier take on the film at by clicking on the banner below!

  • Sandra

    “She’s just going to lie there and think of Britain”? Shouldn’t that be “think of Mongolia”? You like MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VLANCE? I found it ludicrous, since the cast were all so elderly that in the flashbacks to when they were ‘young’ they looked ready for the Old Age Pension. Plus all the exteriors were obviously filmed on a soundstage. The basic script wasn’t too bad, and might have made a decent movie, with a cast whose average age was about thirty years younger. Now there’s a movie that deserves a remake, but probably won’t get one since nobody makes westerns any more.

  • Sandra

    Looks like my comment didn’t go through the first time. Drat.

  • Ken HPoJ

    Sandra — I find that the messages don’t appear to go through, but do. Hit refresh to see if your message appears. It generally does at that point.

  • A couple thoughts:

    1: On the subject of the real-life drama surrounding this movie, I remember a show on NatGeo a year or two back on the subject. They showed reasonably convincingly (I thought) that the radiation probably wasn’t the issue, and that Wayne’s death – and the cancer of so many other people on the crew – probably had more to do with the fallout from Marlboro than the fallout from radioactive testing.

    2: On the subject of Jamuga’s death… I can actually give them that one, almost. As I remember, history has it that Jamuga eventually did betray Genghis Khan, and he requested that he be killed by having his back broken, rather than the execution reserved for a traitor, as a matter of honor. Khan allowed it, I believe, because Jamuga had been his blood brother.

    3: I think the best possible description of the casting situation I’ve heard is this.

    “The Magnificent Seven. Proof that a charismatic Mongolian (Yul Brynner) can play an impressive American cowboy. The Conqueror. Proof that an impressive American cowboy can’t play a charismatic Mongolian.”

  • Sugarbaby

    I own a copy of the Medveds’ original publication “The 50 Worst Films Ever Made”, and this was one of them. They quoted Susan Hayward as saying something like, “I cracked up all through that one! Me, a red-headed Tartar princess! It looked like some drunken Irishman had had a stopover on his way to Carthay!”

    So I’m assuming that she didn’t take it quite as seriously as Wayne and Hughes did. :)

    Nice review, Ken! Thoroughly enjoyable, and I really appreciated the clips, as there’s no way in hell I’m spending any kind of money to actually watch this movie on purpose. Thought I was going to wet myself, I laughed so hard at the Duke repeating “My Mother” to Endora (I don’t care if her character’s name is Hunlun, or Sunfun or FrootLoop or whatever; to me, she’s Endora), she’s not much older than him! And his drawl just does NOT bring to mind a ruthless Mongolian tyrant, lol! I’m a long-time lurker of the back pews of Jabootu but this is my first time commenting, so…hi Mom! :)

  • Zandor Vorkov

    If I were a cynical man, I might think that the final battle was comprised entirely of the same four or five stunts shot from different angles and edited together to make it seem as though dozens and dozens of men were dying.

    If I were a cynical man.

  • A Straight Dope

    Some of the background material at the beginning of this excellent article seems to be quoted verbatim and without attribution from a “The Straight Dope” column by “Cecil Adams.” Give the guy credit where it’s due — just because he doesn’t really exist doesn’t mean you shouldn’t credit him.

  • That was a terrific review. For some reason, as someone that has studied quite a bit about the mongol empire, it is nice to see that after Temujin gets his revenge, peace and prosperity reigned forever more. God bless Hollywood.