John Wayne so let's get that out of the way. I've seen just about every single one of his feature-length films, and more than a few of his ventures are on the Just Hit Play All-Time Favorite List. I can be honest though when necessary, and the 1950's were far from the Duke's strongest decade. Though there were some gems -- Rio Bravo, The Searchers, Hondo among others -- there were some duds, real tankers. Blood Alley, The Barbarian and the Geisha, Legend of the Lost, all not remembered so fondly but one rises (or sinks?) above the rest. Definitely Wayne's worst film and one remembered as one of the worst of all-time, 1956's The Conqueror.
"Why is it so bad, Tim?" you might ask. Why? Well, John Wayne, the all-American movie star takes a crack at playing the infamous Mongol warrior and leader Genghis Khan. Yeah, you read that right. John Wayne plays Genghis Khan. And away we go!
Ruling his tribe/clan of Mongols on the Asian Steppe, fiery, brutal warrior Temujin (Wayne) has caused himself some issues. Namely, a violent conflict he's started with a rival tribe because he kidnapped said tribe leader's wife-to-be, Bortai (Susan Hayward). The equally fiery woman wants nothing to do with Temujin and making it worse, her father killed Temujin's father years before. Uh-oh, family drama! Even as war looms and his people threaten to leave him entirely, Temujin refuses to give up his kidnapped bride who wants nothing to do with him (or does she?!?). Instead, the Mongol leader looks to form an uneasy alliance with a past enemy to hold his power and hopefully gain much, much more. Can it all hold together long enough for Temujin to do what he needs to do to reach out and grab everything he wants? The answer lies on a trail of bodies and a river of blood across the Steppe.
Well, that was a fun plot synopsis to write! It's not too often I get to write a trail of bodies and a river of blood in a review. It's an easy plot to spell out because it is just so criminally bad. We will address John Wayne as Genghis Khan in a bit -- that's too easy -- but there's so much badness here in all-around fashion. The script offers one stilted scene of dialogue after another and then one betrayal and backstabbing after another. Imagine the Indians in 1950's westerns -- Me Indian. How! -- but transitioned to a war on the Asian steppe. Yeah, it's just as bad and cliched and just plain dumb as you'd expect. Actor-turned-director Dick Powell is at the helm of a real stinker here, basically from beginning to end. It doesn't build to bad. It just IS bad.
Okay, John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Let's process this. Let's rationalize. It can't be as bad as it sounds, right? No, it's exactly how it sounds. In the late 1940's and into the 1950's, Wayne really developed as an actor, piling up some of his best roles -- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Searchers -- but this is just uncomfortable to watch. As Ben Manckiewicz said during the recent airing of 'Conqueror' on TCM, Wayne has said in interviews he played Khan as an American cowboy, a tough gunfighter and wouldn't you know it? That formula doesn't work. He's trying so give him credit because it would have been easy to phone this one in (real easy). Wayne just has too much working against him from the aforementioned dialogue that sounds especially stiff coming from the Duke down to the ridiculous mustache wardrobe set him up with. Bad. Really bad so be forewarned.
No one in the cast escapes the wrath of the script to be honest. Hayward was one tough actress, but she doesn't have much chemistry with Wayne and that's a problem when the driving force of the movie is their passion-filled, love-hate relationship. Hayward does get a bizarre, forced striptease/sexy dance of sorts so....there's that, I guess? Pedro Armendariz plays Temujin's half-brother, Jamuga, his conscious, a wise sidekick who recommends what to do next. Also look for Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, William Conrad, John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia in supporting parts. Familiar faces Lee Van Cleef and Leo Gordon get supporting background parts. A whole bunch of very non-Asian actors playing Asian parts and the end results are just as bad as you figured they would be. Not a winner in the bunch!
If there's a positive, it comes as a bit of a loaded statement. The scope and scale of the movie is impressive. The battle scenes of colliding, thundering armies crashing into each other are something to behold. The stuntwork is impressive throughout as hundreds of riders fill the screen in lavish uniforms set against the stunning backdrop of the Utah desert. Then there's the issue...the filming locations were 100-miles south of nuclear testing sites and judging by the amount of cast members that would die from cancer over the coming years, it seems the U.S. government's promise that the nuclear fallout wouldn't head their direction...well, that's garbage. Much of the cast and crew would die over the next 5, 10 and 20-plus years from varying cancers, quite possibly from the arduous filming schedule in the Utah desert. If that's not tragic, I don't know what is.
So here we are. The fact that 'Conqueror' has a 3.3 rating on IMDB is a testament to John Wayne fans who are fighting a heck of a battle to bring that number up at least a little. This movie is just as bad and worse as you've heard. I lost interest pretty quickly but stuck it out, hoping things might improve at some point. That's the worst kind of a bad movie, one that's almost impossible to even enjoy in guilty pleasure fashion. Give this one a wide, big-old berth, and that's coming from one of the biggest John Wayne fans around.
The Conqueror (1956): */****