Let’s play a word association game. I say John Wayne. You say …
Chances are your answer was one of the following; actor, Westerns, war movies, signature accent, or something along those lines. If your answer was Genghis Khan, please report to the nearest sanatorium, or just hit the hardware store, cover your body in lighter fluid, and melt down like a Nazi at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
If you answered Genghis Khan, it would imply that you’ve suffered your way through “Conqueror”, the debacle Howard Hughes film that pits Wayne as the historic Mongol ruler. The film follows Temujin’s rise to power, eventually to overthrow the neighboring clans and rise to power, claiming the title of Genghis Khan. That rise is chronicled with battles, brawls, and comedic romantic moments, all of which center around the budding relationship between Temujin (Wayne) and Tartar slave, Bortai (Hayward).
Have you ever seen “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist”? In that movie, Steve Odenkirk injects himself into footage from 1970’s Kung Fu movies (including 1976’s The Savage Killers). Conqueror is sort of like that, except that instead of flawlessly dropping Steve O into existing footage, this film drops a completely wooden Wayne, chewing through dialogue among a literal army of Native Americans (used as extras). Wayne’s performance is an absolute caricature of his legendary acting career. Hayward is beautiful, but she’s very white, and very done up in wardrobe and make-up. Watching the pale, white couple is like dropping two dating Goths into the middle of South Beach during Spring Break.
Temujin meets Bortai when his men raid a Tartar clan camp. He claims that she will be his bride, but his mojo is as convincing as a 7th grader passing “do you like me, check yes or no” letters in class. Despising the Mongol, Bortai tries to pit Temujin against his brother, Jamuga (Armendiaz), but the brothers’ bond is too strong. Temujin saves her life, and she soon finds herself willing to fall for his rare combination of cowboy accent and Fu Manchu.
“That must be the king.”
“How do you know?”
“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”
(To truly understand Conqueror, try this exercise. Work up your best John Wayne impersonation. Now try these broken English exercises:
“I stole you. I will keep you. Before the sun sets you will come willingly to my arms.”
“I have taken you for wife, Bortai, and I take your dowry. Tomorrow, in Urga, I make gift of it to Wang Khan.”
“I value your good wishes, Shaman.”
“Death comes not easy to Temujin.”
How does Temujin woo the beautiful Bortai? With slick lines telling her that the furs included in her dowry are worth as much as she is, slapping her, and hinting that he has a raging sexual need for her. That doesn’t even work on the Internet, where the 19 year old blonde you’re hitting on is probably a 45 year old guy in his basement. Temujin returns to his clan with Bortai in tow (insulting her all the way), and a great feast is held as her capture is a symbol of the clan’s strength over the Tartars.
The celebration includes a dance number, and then a scrying that indicates danger is gathering at the doors of the Mongol kingdom. Temujin decides to scout it out, and to build the war party that will overcome the combined enemy of the Tartar and the Merkats. Temujin rides right into a trap, but he is rescued by other members of his clan. He flees to safety, following his only route to survival.
The shirtless Temujin is saved by his brother, Jamuga. Jamuga ventures into the captured lands to speak to the Tartar General Kumlek (Ted de Corsla). Bortai warns him, but the drunk and foolish General refuses to believe her warning. She orders Jamuga placed in a guarded tent, providing him the opportunity to escape. Of course, it’s just her way of making him bait for her would-be husband, Temujin. By the time the brothers are united, the trap is sprung, and Temujin is captured.
The captured Mongol is paraded along, carrying a large chunk of wood (a la Jesus carrying the cross). The Tartars mock his suffering, and Bortai watches at her father’s side as Temujin exchanges barbs with the Tartar Chief. Later, as the chief celebrates, Bortai cuts Temujin’s bonds, nurses him back to health, and provides his means for escape. (Remember, so far he has courted her through monosyllabic sentences, backhands, and threats of sex against her will.)
Temujin returns to his camp to find his brother named Chief. He sends his people out among the clans to unite the Mongols in one common assault (kind of like Avatar, except the brothers have no credibility and are completely unconvincing). Every member of his heritage must gather, and lay their life on the line, so that he can finally get a piece of that sweet Tartar princess he’s been chasing (for well over an hour now). His messengers are captured; betrayed by the Mongol leader and his chieftain. Traditional means aren’t enough to hold them, and the unlikely duo find a way to escape under the shadow of moonlight, and warn Genghis Wayne aka Temujin.
Temujin and his brothers, following the guidance of “priest with traffic cone helmet”, overtake the Khan (William Conrad in about 20 seconds of screen time) and unite the Mongols. Temujin becomes Genghis Khan, and he leads the united Mongol forces to overthrow the Tartars, and any other unspecific tribe the writers happened to toss into the mix. Khan unites the tribes, and marches against Kumlek, in the name of the woman, Bortai.
In the end, it’s Wayne’s army vs. the unrecognizable hordes of the enemy. Mindless bloodshed abounds, with countless soldiers and horses falling to death in the (Utah) desert. Genghis eventually catches up to Kumlek, finishing him, and eliminating the head of the Tartars. Bortai swears her love to the new Khan, and every tribe follows, bowing before the monolithic Cowboy tone of their new ruler.
“Conqueror” is like a middle school play based on historic fiction. The premise is solid enough, but the execution is pitiful. The film combines terrible dialogue with wooden acting and poor casting to create a completely unbelievable, comical and worthless viewing experience.
Everything about “Conqueror” is awful. Let’s put it this way. The film was shot near a nuclear test site, and later, 60 tons of dirt from the set was shipped to Hollywood. People magazine performed a study released in 1980 about the film. Wayne, Hayward, Armendariz, Moorehead, John Hoyt, and director Dick Powell were among the 91 of 220 cast and crew who contracted cancer. It might have been embarrassment if more people had actually watched this film. Howard Hughes, who ponied up the money to make the film, turned around and paid an estimated $12 million (twice the filming budget) to purchase every print. The film wasn’t available until 1974, when Paramount secured the rights to reissue the movie.
In later interviews, Wayne was quoted as saying the moral of Conqueror was "not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for."
“Conqueror” has achieved a bizarre hat trick in bad movie history. It is included in "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and how they got that way)" by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell, John Wilson’s “The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made” and “My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure” by Nathan Rabin. Rabin refers to the character as “John Waynghis Khan”.