DVD: Conqueror, The (1956)

October 5, 2018 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Good

Label:  KOCH Media (Germany)

Region: 2 (PAL)

Released:  October, 2007

Genre:  Action / Romance / Historical Epic

Synopsis: The back & forth romance between nation-builder Mongol Genghis Khan and fetching Tartar wench Bortai propel this infamous and very silly career misstep by box office champion John Wayne.

Special Features:  German-only 1995 TV documentary: “Der Eroberer und seine Folgen: Besicht uber eine radioaktiven Film” (17:36) / German Theatrical Trailer / Still Gallery / 16-page colour booklet with German liner notes by Sascha Westphal / Slipcase.

 


 

Review:

 

“The Conqueror? Mighty armies cannot stop him. But one touch of my lips… Yes, he captured me – but he cannot tame me.” — Bortai speaks with great honesty.

 

Preamble

For roughly the first 10 years of his acting career, John Wayne had appeared in a wealth of westerns, from B-grade Three Mesquiteers quickies to the early 65mm film The Big Trail (1930), and he enjoyed a long association with John Ford who either allowed or recognized a greater range in Wayne. Their post-1939 collaborations included the iconic western Stagecoach (1939), the merchant marine drama The Long Voyage Home (1940), the WWII actioner They Were Expendable (1945), and the Irish romantic melodrama The Quiet Man (1952) – films which proved Wayne was great as a leader, a moral lawman, a tough marine, air force pilot, and leading man whose physical stature masked a charmer and a man with old world passion, so it made sense that during the 1950s the actor would seek to further his work with more challenging roles, or go somewhat against type.

Westerns, especially those with Ford, continued into the decade, but by 1947 Wayne had also sensed the value in setting up his own production shingle, which wasn’t an especially radical maneuver, given he flowed between studios Fox and Warner Bros. as well as indie studio Republic Pictures. What was striking is how savvy Wayne had become, recognizing his skill set, his marquee value, and selling his brand in traditional ventures and sometimes supporting a unique story, like the plane crash drama Island in the Sky (1953) in which he starred, or more notably Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a little film lacking big stars except Gilbert Roland (Beneath the 12-Mike Reef, Underwater!), newcomer Robert Stack (TV’s The Untouchables), and director Budd Boetticher (The Tall T, Comanche Station).

At Warner Bros. Wayne played a ‘good German’ cargo captain whose ship is overtaken by evil Nazis in The Sea Chase (1955), and that same year, in Blood Alley he played an American merchant marine who escapes from communist China after his ship’s seizure by authorities – both attempts to transplant Wayne The Captain into semi-exotic locales, and somewhat diverse cultures. Like Wayne The Pilot or Colonel or Marshal, he was the leader or lone leader or an unjustly persecuted good man.

Perhaps that’s why Wayne, ready for a new archetype (or hybrid of his existing variations) fixated on a peculiar script with the most unlikely of roles: Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader who, like Alexander the Great, brought tribes together to brutally conquer lands and lay the foundation of an empire that extended to India, China, and parts of Europe.

As the legend goes, in spite of protestations from director Dick Powell, himself a former actor and song & dance man (On the Avenue), Wayne insisted on making his last film for RKO The Conqueror, and with Howard Hughes still at the helm of the studio, what could go wrong?

Well, plenty, and Wayne should’ve known Hughes was not a straight owner and CEO; he was a meddler, and way back in 1949 Wayne co-starred with then-newcomer Janet Leigh in Jet Pilot, a peculiar Cold War drama / comedy / aerial action production, which finished production in 1950, went through reshoots and multiple directors. When ‘completed’ around 1953, it sat on the shelf until 1957, and was released only because Hughes’ mismanagement of the company sent it into a mortal tailspin. Following RKO’s bankruptcy, Jet Pilot saw light through studio Universal, after which Hughes reportedly bought back the rights, and along with The Conqueror, kept it out of circulation except in his own private screening room where he watched the films over and over and over again.

Jet Pilot isn’t a mess, but a wonky pastiche of ideas steamrolled into a final cut that’s more interesting as a curio of oddball cinema, as well as some marvelous jet dogfights in crisp Technicolor. The Conqueror is kind of a mess, but endures as one of the worst and costliest films produced by Hollywood, and Wayne’s most embarrassing role.

 

 

How much of the script was rewritten or what other writers were brought in to fix problems real and Hughesian is unknown, but there is a sense the biographical details of the real Khan was tailored to suit the Wayne archetype of a man who can command, and through great strength and conviction, smite his enemies and survive to build a new order.

What is known by historians (and cribbed in Wikipedia), is that Genghis Khan was born Temujin Borjigin and lived between 1162-1227. The son of a noble leader, Yesugei, Temujin had three brothers, two half-brothers, and was to wed Borte from another tribe at the age of 12, but after his father was poisoned by the Tartars, his family was abandoned by their own tribe. At 16 he wed Borte, but she was soon kidnapped by another tribe and sold off into marriage. His friend Jamukha aided in her rescue, and although Jamukha would become a rival during Temujin’s building of the Mongol Empire, Borte would remain his main wife, and become mother of four sons, of which the first’s parentage was murky. Later anointed Genghis Khan, Temujin lived into his 60s before dying from either a fall during a hunt, or from wounds inflicted during a battle.

 

“I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar woman.” — Temujin acknowledges the wisdom of hemoglobin, even when it’s a little lippy.

 

As reordered by otherwise really good screenwriter Oscar Millard (No Highway in the Sky, Angel Face, Dead Ringer), Temujin (Wayne) has two brothers, soft-spoken Jamuga (Wayne’s 3 Godfathers’ co-star Pedro Armendariz), and strongman-warrior Kasar (future TV Cannon star William Conrad). Living among their 200 strong army is his mum Hunlun (Agnes Moorehead in Old Maid makeup #42) and many ordinary men & women & children.

One afternoon Temujin and a team spot a small Tartar caravan transgressing on their land, and Temujin abducts Bortai (Susan Hayward), the daughter of Kumlek (Man in the Dark’s Ted de Corsia), the murderer of his father Yesugai. Things get off to a bad start when Temujin tears off her clothes in front of his men, and later rapes Bortai under an outcropping while a posse of her father’s soldiers trot above and away into the far distance.

While brother Kasar seems to have no interest in women (he likes cracking skulls and bending steel just fine), younger brother Jamuga shares Temujin’s interest in the captured maiden, who’s “much woman” according to the future conqueror. A tepid jealousy is seeded between the otherwise close brothers, while mom Hunlun is unimpressed with her future daughter-in-law and remains pretty snippy.

A raid by Bortai’s father brings her freedom, but also decimates a significant portion of Temujin’s tribe, and after being wounded by the new posse, Temujin hides in a cave and removes a nasty arrow from his chest. Jamuga brings water and food, but he’s also tracked by the posse, who quickly find and drag Temujin to Kumlek’s base in stocks. Seeing her hubby tormented by her mean father, Bortai develops genuine affection for the conqueror, and after he’s freed, plays dumb to his escape.

Temujin and his brothers decide to head south to China and become unintended permanent guests of Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez in Asian makeup #18). From there the story attempts to track Temujin’s efforts to escape from the Great Wall, get back Bortai, and enjoy some revenge in killing Kumlek.

The easiest target for critics is Wayne himself, looking ridiculous as he plays the most atypical role of his career with Total Commitment. Although fit and tanned and garbed in decent costumes, there’s simply no way John Wayne can shed his iconic persona. Temujin is another cowboy with colourful brothers (one fat & jovial like Friar Tuck, the other a soft-voice rival), a doting mother, and beneath his gruff & dusty shell resides a decent man with a commitment to living in peace with all, once villains are dispatched to hell with swift action. Any prior brutality to men & women is old history.

 

“Come and take me, mongrels – if you dare. While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders. For I am Temujin, the Conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army defeat me.” — Temujin speaks with great frankness.

 

Kaufman’s dialogue is sometimes appropriately poetic – appropriate for a period piece – but also laughable, and Bortai is just another babe who, in the bizarre world of 1950s cinema logic, falls for her rapist after he’s reduced to a pouting, wounded, captured, and now tormented stud. Bortai is neither clever nor an important addition to his position as Mongol leader beyond a child-bearer, and Hayward is essentially playing a reduced version of Delilah – the scene in which she sees her stud in stocks strongly echoes the guilt which motivates the temptress to free her blind stallion in Samson and Delilah (1949).

Perhaps the only character (and actor) who survives this mess with dignity is Jamuga, because Armendariz plays him as a noble man struggling under the shadow of his bullying brother. Jamuga talks sense, logic, and strategy, and he instinctively knows when something is foul, but his fidelity to his brother, the family, and tribe send him and Kasar on a suicide mission as emissaries to raise support with Wang Khan. (To Millard’s credit, when Temujin sends them to China, there is a sense he’s exploiting the potential for failure to get rid of Jamuga, whom he knows harbors feelings for Bortai.)

It’s logical that Wang Khan’s Iago-like shaman (John Hoyt, squinting and pouting in Asian visage #2) will scheme to kill them, and Temujin’s brother Kasar doesn’t manage to escape – the character is wholly disposable, existing to be a victim, and spawns outrage which perhaps seeds a future hunger to include China in his list of Territories to Conquer.

Interestingly, there’s no complete reunion between the two surviving brothers: Temujin forgives past sins and missteps, but Jamuga’s sense of honor has him retreat from the anointed court of Genghis Khan, presumably to walk into the desert until he succumbs to exhaustion and becomes a buzzard burger.

Gomez’ acting style tended to be a little theatrical, but he was a smooth-voiced character actor able to drift between assorted roles (he’s pivotal as the moral guide to Tyrone Power in the excellent Captain from Castile), whereas Hoyt tended to suit slightly cranky, irritable, and / or incensed scientists and bureaucrats.

Massively prolific character actor Richard Loo (Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo) is the only Asian with a semblance of prominence (he plays one of Wang Khan’s guards); only a few peripheral roles are dotted with the odd Asian actor. Visible in the cast is Lee Van Cleef The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Day of Anger) as a dancing member of Temujin’s tribe, and Leo Gordon (The Intruder, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) as one of Kumlek’s mean soldiers.

Dancer Barry Chase (Cape Fear, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) has an uncredited role as Wang Khan’s nimble dancer in one of the film’s major highlights. It’s a heavily 1950s number – hair, colours, and costumes are hardly evocative of the Mongol era – but Chase is great to watch, and the ‘scope sequence is beautifully shot and edited, which is no surprise, given Powell started out as a singer-hoofer.

Wayne’s dreadful miscasting also overshadows Powell’s solid direction, along with some superb camerawork and stunts. All scenes involving charging riders – especially the opening raid on Bortai’s parade – are superbly shot, with camera cars tracking alongside Temujin’s cavalry, and the stunt riders do some dangerous maneuvers when descending awfully steep cliffsides and sandy slopes.

Powell also uses the CinemaScope ratio to fill the scene with action and detail, and he has a fixation on starting on a figure or object, and pulling back to a series of complicated tracking shots before slowing down and resting. The camera manned by ace cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Where the Sidewalk Ends, My Cousin Rachel, The Fortune Cookie) is almost consistently moving, perhaps a sign of Powell’s confidence in using the widescreen cameras for camera movements reminiscent of veteran Michael Curtiz, or Edward Dmytryk who directed Powell in the noir classic Murder, My Sweet (1944). Either way, the location cinematography is first-rate, especially the colours of the deep red soil and rocks of the St. George, Utah locations.

 

From Cinematic Dud to Poisonous Production

The film’s ignominious history as a major turkey and one of Wayne’s most embarrassing films should’ve ended after the Howard Hughes bought the film and withdrew it from circulation until it re-emerged via Universal after his death, but in 1980 an article was published by People Magazine which investigated the peculiar coincidence of many Conqueror cast and crewmates dying from assorted cancers not long after the film’s release.

The tragedy became apparent when it was revealed inhabitants of St. George received the highest dose of radioactivity on a civilian population from dust blown from nuclear test sites that lay close to the locations. Worse, tons of soil were carted back to RKO’s studio to film interiors, exposing the production members to several weeks of contaminated soil.

Universal’s John Wayne DVD collection includes an anamorphic transfer of the film sans extras, whereas KOCH Media’s German Region 2 disc includes a short WDR German documentary from 1995 in which a TV crew visited the U.S. and spoke with the last surviving major cast member, actress Jeanne Gerson (Bortai’s slave).

Director Wieland Schultz-Keil (producer of John Huston’s The Dead) also interviewed Michael Wayne, who was present on set with his father, a few St. George residents, and Tom Saffer from the Nuclear Veterans Organization who explains with photographs the insanity of U.S. infantry walking towards freshly detonated atomic mushroom clouds, and the wave of cancer that affected the town’s multi-generational inhabitants. The on-camera Q&As are in English, but there’s a German overdub that obfuscates much of what’s said, although one can tune into the English replies for long chunks.

It’s a grotesque story that punctuates Wayne and Powell’s career misstep, and the 16-page booklet (in German) features further bio material by Sacha Westphal.

KOCH’s DVD is a very nice production – it’s a dual layer disc sporting a fairly clean print, although some obvious digital stabilization is used to tackle some ongoing jitter. The artifacting is noticeable in the main titles which have an odd shimmer, and some sustained shots where vertical objects have softened jitter. The colours are rich and stable, and although the German dub track is in mono, the original English mix is in pretty vibrant stereo.

Victor Young’s score booms nicely in the stereo track. The whiny and oft-repeated love theme reportedly stems from a classical piece, while a few sections recall Young’s better-known period score, Samson and Delilah (which benefited from a superior, stellar love theme).

The original publicity paintings are partially reproduced in the booklet and the DVD sleeve, giving this ignominious dud some tender respectability which some might argue is wholly undeserving. Other extras include a still gallery (freeze frames from the video) and a German trailer packed with the usual hype.

The Conqueror is a dud, but it is fascinating as an artifact, and the quality work of some cast and its crew can’t be denied. KOCH’s release remains the only genuine attempt to present the film in its best form, and with important contextual extras, and it’s a pity the film hasn’t been further examined in a proper Blu-ray. Perhaps it’s a fear of libel: bad production decisions, horrible government subterfuge, and ignorance which exposed cast & crew to dangerous radioactive soil and dust which, as Wayne’s son admits, triggered the Geiger Counter seen in the publicity stills that show father and sons in Utah.

Both Universal’s R1 set and KOCH’s R2 DVDs allow Wayne fans and connoisseurs of ill-conceived & problematic epics to experience the Wayne-Hughes double-bill of Jet Pilot and The Conqueror, but KOCH is the only label that sought to highlight the unique histories of these productions.

 

Postscript and Post-Mortem

John Wayne died of lung cancer after completing The Shootist (1976), Susan Hayward died of brain cancer in 1975, Pedro Armendariz committed suicide after completing his scenes for From Russia with Love (1963) to avoid a painful, slow demise, Agnes Moorehead died of cancer in 1973, and John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991.

Dick Powell directed Split Second (1953), The Conqueror (1956), You Can’t Run Away from It (1956), The Enemy Below (1957), The Hunters (1958), and the TV movie Woman on the Run (1959). He also co-founded Four Star Productions which produced an eponymous TV series (1952-1956), and a self-titled show for Powell (1961-1963). The former hoofer turned astute producer-director died of lung cancer in 1963.

Howard Hughes’ (mis)adventures in films began as a producer during the 1920s, after which he tackled co-directing with Hell’s Angels (1930) and the mammary-obsessed The Outlaw (1943). Upon purchasing RKO Radio Pictures in 1948, he supervised / meddled in assorted productions, two of which starred Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell (His Kind of Woman, Macao).

The Conqueror was among the last films produced & released by the studio after Hughes sold it to General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955. Conqueror made some money – its infamy perhaps helped it make $4.5 million – but its massive $6 million budget still kept it in the red. RKO was shuttered and its assets sold in 1957, with Jet Pilot released by Universal-International. Hughes later blew $12 million to buy back his Genghis Khan epic, and after his death in 1976, Universal bought the picture from his estate in 1979, after which it was reportedly reissued in an unofficial ‘bad Wayne’ double-bill by the studio.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Composer Filmography
 
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