The true story of the rise of Mongol leader Genghis Khan, who would
go on to conquer most of the known world in the 13th century.
The Conqueror (1956)
Directed by Dick Powell
Written by Oscar Millard
Starring John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz,
Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, John Hoyt, William Conrad,
Ted de Corsia, Leslie Bradley, Lee Van Cleef
The Conqueror is a film that represents the worst impulses of 20th century Hollywood. With not a single Asian in the film, this embarrassment sports more yellow face than The Simpsons. Starring John Wayne, the whitest actor who ever lived, as Mongol leader Genghis Khan, this film ignores the darkest aspects of history to give audiences a watered-down biopic of one of the most evil men who ever lived. Despite how the film portrays Khan, he wasn't a hero, he wasn't lovesick, and he certainly didn't talk like a cowboy from Iowa.
Wayne is Temujin, the Mongol clan leader who declares war on rival leader Kumlek (Ted de Corsia) after he kidnaps Temujin's wife Bortai (Susan Hayward), who happens to be Kumlek's daughter. By the way, Bortai spends the first half of the film hating Temujin's guts because he kidnapped her, raped her, and held her against her will. When Temujin is captured, she does a 180 and declares her love for him, even helping him to escape. There are plot inconsistencies like this peppered throughout the film, but this was the biggest one for me. Most of the film is political dialogue about conquering the world, with the only real battle scene of the film taking place at the end, when Temujin becomes Genghis Khan.
When you combine the casting of Wayne as Genghis Khan, the weird decision to glamorize the genocidal Khan as a folk hero, and the fact that the irradiated set may have led to nearly 100 cases of cancer for the cast and crew, The Conqueror becomes one of Hollywood's worst decisions. It's a film that spits in the face of history and drops John Wayne's acting cred down substantially. Even he hated it. The only things I can praise are the production design, which was quite spot-on, and the battle scenes, which were grand in scale. But I doubt I've ever seen a film as oblivious to the mark as The Conqueror.