Anniversary Post: The Conqueror

John Wayne

On this day, 28 March, in 1956, The Conqueror was released to the public. It is a CinemaScope extravaganza about the rise of Genghis Khan. Directed by Dick Powell (The Enemy Below), it does not disappoint in terms of battle scenes and spectacle. At the time of it’s release, John McCarten correctly noted, “You never saw so many horses fall down in your life.”

And if that were all, it’s be a fun old film that was beautifully rendered. But it’s not. For some reason, John Wayne was cast to play Genghis Khan. Even without speaking, he looks silly with the Fu Manchu mustache. And he moves awkwardly, although I guess that’s part of his persona.

It’s when he speaks that Wayne is at his worst. Every character was apparently the same for him — be it Genghis Khan or Cole Thornton or the Ringo Kid.

I don’t like laughing at movies. I think it’s a personal defect. But it’s hard not to chuckle watching The Conqueror. Everyone else in the film can act. And then there’s John Wayne who sticks out like a Make a Wish kid whose dream was to play with the Harlem Globetrotters.


In it, Temujin (who will become Genghis Khan) basically goes to war because he has the hots for Bortai (Susan Hayward). He gets her quickly with a combination of bad tactics and overwhelming force.

Temujin’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) is none too pleased about the “red-headed Jezebel.” (Yes, that’s actual dialog!) But then, no one is pleased. She doesn’t want to be there and is determined to cause trouble. His brother, Jamuga (Pedro Armend├íriz), considers setting her free. (Jamuga is far more heroic in the film and believable as the Mongol leader.)

This is a great set-up for a tragedy, but we already know who Genghis Khan is. Add to that John Wayne and we’re talking major happy time by the end. Within 15 minutes after her capture Bortai is passionately kissing Temujin.


Many of the exterior scenes in The Conqueror were shot downwind of the Nevada National Security Site where they tested a lot of nuclear weapons. Many claim that this was the cause of such a large part of the cast and crew getting (and often dying from) cancer.

It’s not clear to me that this is actually the case. When people live long enough, they have a very high chance of getting cancer. It is true, however, that financial backer Howard Hughes thought he had effectively killed a bunch of people. He bought up all prints later and the film was not re-released until after his death.

What I think is most interesting is that so many people put themselves in danger for a film that mostly doesn’t work (at least as intended) because John Wayne never learned, or tried, to act.

Should You See The Conqueror?

The truth is that The Conqueror isn’t even good for people who like to laugh at films. There’s really only one joke. It’s a perfectly fine film. And then there’s John Wayne in the middle of it, messing everything up.

This trailer gives you a good idea what the film is like. But the color is far better on good prints. This doesn’t feature as much embarrassing John Wayne dialog as you’ll find in the film.

Also on 28 March

Also born today: actors Dirk Bogarde (The Night Porter) in 1921, Freddie Bartholomew (Little Lord Fauntleroy) in 1924, and Ken Howard (The White Shadow) in 1944. Vince Vaughn (Old School) is 50, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz) is 48, and Cho Seung-woo (Tazza: The High Rollers) is 40.

Producer Pandro S Berman (Ivanhoe) was born in 1905. Screenwriter Edward Anhalt (Becket) was born in 1914. And director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) is 78, Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) is 77, and Brett Ratner (Red Dragon) is 51.

John Wayne in Rio Bravo by Liorek in Public Domain.

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