The Conqueror: Debacle in the Desert

The Conqueror is considered one of the worst movies of all time, and definitely the worst movie in which John Wayne was ever involved. But Wayne cannot carry the blame for this movie solely on his shoulders. Sure, Wayne as a Mongol chieftain — surrounded by such luminous other “Asian” stars of the day, like Pedro Armendariz as Jumuga (a blood brother), William Conrad as Kasar (his real brother), Lee Van Cleef as Chepei (his aide-de-camp), and Agnes Moorehead as Hunlun (his mother) — was a horrible miscasting, but probably no more so than Susan Hayward as the Tartar woman for whom he lusts.

The most stupendously horrible mistake of the whole movie however, is the script. The language, as written, will make you think of the worst production you ever saw of a Shakespearean play. Somewhat of a conundrum, if you ask me, since only five years earlier writer Oscar Millard had been nominated for an Oscar for his script for The Frogmen. I haven’t seen that one, nor even heard of it until I was researching this movie. But surely the Academy saw a different writer then. Even the eras most accomplished Shakespearean actors would have had trouble with this script, though.

The film has, to it’s credit, some fairly decent music by Victor Young, and Dick Powell as director pulled off some fairly decent horse battle scenes. But hardly anyone in front of the camera, Wayne included, measured up to anything even remotely worthy of the spectacle that was attempted. Rumor has it that Howard Hughes, the financial backer of the film, was so embarrassed by it that he bought up and tried to destroy every print of the film, yet, according to his biographers, during his last days he watched it over and over again. Wayne was hoping to garner some backing from Hughes for The Alamo, but that didn’t pan out.

It is well known that the movie was filmed in Utah, downwind as it were, from the nuclear testing site in the same state. An inordinate number of people involved in this movie developed and died of cancer. Of course, a number of them, Wayne included, were heavy smokers, but that is sometimes overlooked in the zeal to lay blame on nuclear weapons).

On a positive note, whether or not it was a result of this adventure, John Wayne teamed up with John Ford for his next project, which many deem the greatest Western of all time, The Searchers.

The Conqueror begins with a caravan crossing the desert. In the caravan are Targutai (Lesley Bradley) and Bortai (Susan Hayward). Bortai is the daughter of Kumlek (Ted de Corsia), a rival clan leader and the wedding of Bortai and Targutai will serve as a unity point for the two tribes. Temujin (John Wayne), clan leader of the Mongols, and a cohort ride up to confront Targutai, who is crossing Mongol territory. Temujin is smitten (thats S-M-I-T-T-E-N) by Bortai.

He goes back to his camp and rounds up a raiding party to go descend upon the infiltrating caravan. He and his clansmen overrun the caravan and Temujin takes Bortai prisoner, intending to make her his wife. When Hunlun (Agnes Moorehead), Temujin’s mother, hears that her son has taken the daughter of a hated rival clan leader, one who incidentally had killed Temujin’s father, she expresses her outrage.

Temujin will not be swayed, even when Bortai, who is not exactly pleased with her new predicament tries to kill him. She even tries to enlist the help of Temujin’s blood brother, Jamuga (Pedro Armendariz). Jamuga is tempted but he proclaims his undying love and respect for his blood brother.

Temujin makes plans to try to take over the clan of his rival, Kumlek, ad tries to enlist the help of a fellow rival Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez). But Wang Khan does not entirely trust Temujin (as well he shouldn’t) and sends his shaman (John Hoyt) to try to divulge the truth. This being a movie about clan rivalry, in addition to the love story, there is much skullduggery involved and you may not know who is really on whose side.

Eventually Bortai is recaptured by her father, as is Temujin. Conveniently for the movie, Bortai has fallen in love with Temujin and helps him escape. The two clans end up in a epic battle, in which, finally, Temujin exacts his revenge upon Kumlek.

This is not entirely as horrible of movie as I would have expected. In fact, if you turn off the sound and just watch it as a silent movie, its not really that bad. You could make up your on dialogue if you want, and it might even be an improvement. The final battle of two horse armies is worth a watch at any rate.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.