Movie Monday: The Conqueror (1956)

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Oh, mama. Oh mama this one’s going to hurt. John Wayne plays Genghis Khan. Genghis actual Khan. 

And, as Chris Sims might say, brother, it is not very good

Now, this film is dire on several levels. Let’s talk about Level 1 first. 

Level 1 is that it is just bad. Some of it is sort of competent, I guess, in a kind of goofy hybrid of a Western and a Hollywood sword epic sort of way. But there’s one gigantic fly in the ointment that stops it being a just-kind-of-sucks Hollywood 50s epic, and that’s The Duke. John Wayne could not be more miscast in this movie. Observe this d-bag: 

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He looks exactly like John Wayne in a stupid hat with a stupid little moustache, and he talks like it too. Here’s an exercise: put on your best John Wayne voice. Warm up with a few classic phrases: “the hell I ain’t,” “fill your hand, you son of a bitch,” that kind of thing. Now say something like: 

What woman’s talk is this, my mother?

or

On, brave suitor — would you desert your bride unkissed? On, craven, the Tartar wench awaits you!

Congratulations; you have now seen The Conqueror

Now, I like a good John Wayne movie as much as the next guy, but he is completely awful in this. Just … just dire. And, of course, he is the whitest Mongol known to man. He’s not the only instance of that in this movie, though. There’s also his “love” interest, a “Tartar” princess played by Susan Hayward: 

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Ah, it’s like I’m transported to the steppes of Central Asia right now. 

So, on the one hand, on a pure artistic level, this movie is hilariously awful. But what about the history? Well, let’s move on to Level 2. Well, Level 3 actually, but you need to understand Level 2 to understand Level 3. 

So, Level 2 is the movie’s creepy-as-hell sexual element. This movie is basically all about rape and how if you threaten a woman with rape enough she’ll fall in love with you. And I mean, seriously, that’s the driving plot of the movie. 

So Temujin and his blood-brother/sidekick/the smart one Jamukha are out riding and they run into Targutai, Baddie No 1, who is about to marry Bortai. Temujin kidnaps Bortai, who it turns out is the daughter of wossname, the guy who killed his father, and he puts her in a tent and then is all offended when she says she doesn’t love him, so he doesn’t actually rape her, but then when Targutai tries to get her back he does, but it’s OK because partway through she decides she likes it? And then he takes her on a diplomatic mission to the requisite Cowardly Fat Guy, Wang Khan, and there is a dance performance that last, oh, approximately one million years, during which Temujin deploys the ancient Mongol art of negs, all talking shit about how Bortai can’t dance, so she does a sexy dance and then throws a sword at him … and it just goes on and on

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And then, for basically no reason whatsoever, she decides she loves him, turns on her father, betrays her people, makes peace between Temujin and buddy/rival Jamukha and goes around saying shit like “his love and loyalty for you are no less than my own,” despite the fact that he’s been a bullying douchebag at best and a sadistic tormentor at worst the entire movie. 

But then, maybe I’m judging too harshly. What woman wouldn’t be moved by this example of manly beauty? 

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I mean, I’m not even gay, but damn

OK, so, anyway, on Level 2 you look at this film and you see that it was produced by notorious Sex Weirdo Howard Hughes, and you’re like, well … 

On to Level 3. 

“But wait, James,” I hear you say, “it’s fucked-up that there’s all this rape and forced marriage and stuff in this movie, but that’s surely historically accurate, right?”

Well, in some cases? Yes. But in this movie, as it happens? Not really. And it’s interesting to me, because I have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers made a historical epic because they wanted to get in a “healthy” dose of rape-’em-til-they-like-it, but in some ways the actual history is pretty against it. 

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Uh huh.

Now, we do not have very many written historical sources for the life of Genghis Khan — the main one, The Secret History, was written after his death and is filled with folklore and heroic exaggeration. But that’s what we’ve got, so. 

And the Secret History tells us that Temujin and Borte (Bortai in the film) had an arranged marriage; they were engaged at 9 and married as teenagers. Nonetheless, from the little we know, they appear to have been actually close. (Temujin’s mother was abducted by his father, though.)

“Oh, OK,” you may say, “but you can’t expect the movie to be a history lesson. They had to add some drama!”

See, the thing is, here’s the thing: early on in their marriage, Borte was in turn abducted by the Merkits (those same baddies from the beginning of the film). Temujin and Jamukha teamed up with another local ruler and went after them, eventually rescuing her. She went on to be his empress, although he did have other wives. 

So the “historical” story of Genghis Khan involves two buddies-turned-rivals teaming up to fight a dangerous enemy and rescue a princess. That’s some action-movie shit right there. And that’s what we lost to have it replaced by “yer hatred will kindle inta luv.”

Mongol is pretty good and is like a fiver.

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Movie Monday: The Conqueror (1956)

3 thoughts on “Movie Monday: The Conqueror (1956)

  1. Sean says:

    John Wayne always plays John Wayne. That movie where he played the German merchant marine captain always perplexed me. It seems like Hollywood execs were living out their rape fantasys in these “barbarian” movies. I was not aware of HH’s proclivities.

    1. I don’t know that Howard Hughes’s preferences themselves were particularly weird, but he certainly carried them to extremes. Nathan Rabin has suggested that the whole “conqueror” thing is very much how Hughes saw his relationship with women.

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