RKO’s 1956 epic The Conqueror has the reputation of being one of the worst movies ever made. That judgment is perhaps a little unfair. While it certainly has its problems and cannot in all honesty be described as a good film, it does have a certain fascination.
Part of this movie’s terrible reputation is undoubtedly due to the assumption that any film that Howard Hughes was involved in must be a bad film. There’s also the undeniably incongruous casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan. The movie’s tendency to play fast and loose with historical accuracy (which it does to an even greater extent than most epics) hasn’t helped its reputation. And lastly there’s the legend (which may or may not be true) that the movie was shot on an old atomic testing site and that as a result almost half of those involved in the production subsequently died of cancer.
In fact The Conqueror’s failure as an epic has little to do with any of these factors.
The movie opens with Temujin, later to be known as Genghis Khan, still a rather minor Mongol chieftain. He captures Bortai (Susan Hayward) during a raid. Given that her father murdered Temujin’s father it’s perhaps not surprising that initially they don’t hit it off too well. Temujin however is convinced that Bortai really is the woman for him.
Temujin is determined to avenge his father’s murder. He has also been convinced by his blood brother Jamuga (Pedro Armendáriz) that he is a man of destiny who will one day rule a vast empire. That day seems a long way off as most of Temujin’s schemes seem to end in disaster.
Both Temujin and Jamuga have a remarkable capacity for getting themselves captured by their enemies. Temujin’s plans to gain the ageing but powerful Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez) as an ally also face formidable obstacles and dangers, the principal danger coming from Wang Khan’s wily and unscrupulous shaman (played by John Hoyt). Meanwhile Bortai is still far from reconciled to the idea of being Temujin’s wife and is likely to cause trouble.
While the movie is called The Conqueror it has to be said that Temujin doesn’t do much conquering. The decision to focus on the early part of the career of the man who would become Genghis Khan is reasonable enough but it does involve one major problem - it reduces the opportunities for spectacular battle scenes. In fact the movie is a bit light on action in general and most of what there is is small-scale stuff. It’s more like a swashbuckling adventure movie than a genuine epic but there’s still not enough action. Concentrating on Temujin’s relationships with Bortai and Jamuga (which is what this film does) could have provided the chance to explore Genghis Khan the man rather than the legend but if you’re going to make an epic about a great conqueror you do need to provide at least some focus on the military and political prowess that allowed him to build up one of the greatest empires in history.
Dick Powell was by no means a poor director. The Enemy Below, which he made in the following year, is an absolutely riveting wartime adventure. He does not seem quite at home with the epic genre however. In actual fact there were very few directors with a real flair for the epic. It’s not enough to spend a lot of money (and the Conqueror was an expensive film) and it’s not enough to have lavish sets and costumes. A few years later Anthony Mann would demonstrate in El Cid how an epic should be made. Mann captured the true epic feel in a way that Powell fails to do.
While the scenery in Utah is impressive enough it presents another problem - it just looks too American, too much like the setting for a western. The necessary exotic feel is just not there.
An epic also needs the right kind of star. John Wayne was a much better actor than Victor Mature but Mature would have been a better choice for the lead - he understood the style of acting that epics require. Howard Hughes however wanted John Wayne. Hughes was probably half right. Wayne had the ability to play larger-than-life characters and he certainly had the ability to portray complex heroes (and Hughes clearly wanted Genghis Khan to be a hero). The trouble is that Wayne tries too hard and his performance ends up seeming tentative and confused. Wayne appears to be thinking too much about his performance.
Susan Hayward on the other hand was the perfect female lead for an epic and if you can get past the fact that she looks even less like a Tartar princess than Wayne looks like a Mongol her performance works quite satisfactorily.
The supporting players are quite good. They bring the right kind of hamminess to their roles.
This is, even by 1950s standards, an astoundingly politically incorrect film. If you’re the kind of person who demands that the movies of the past should conform to modern sensibilities than you’ll have huge problems watching this movie. The fact that Temujin believes that the right way to handle women is to handle them roughly, and the fact that this makes him just the sort of man Bortai wants, may well induce fits of apoplexy among some modern viewers. It’s probably worth pointing out however that the real Genghis Khan was probably not a guy who worried too much about political correctness.
The Conqueror doesn’t really work as an epic and John Wayne is definitely not quite right for the title role but this movie is not as bad as its reputation suggests. In its own way it’s quite a bit of fun to watch. Despite its faults its very notoriety makes it worthy seeing and the ways in which it misses the target make it rather entertaining. Recommended.