In 1991, when Kevin Costner took on the unlikely title role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, critics and some viewers sniffed at his inappropriateness and complete lack of an accent, his flat, American, drone-like voice standing out atrociously against his British costars' more refined inflections. (Somehow, his American costar Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio mostly managed to escape the same fate.) He was hardly the first actor to stand out in such a way and I daresay he won't be the last. At least the film was a significant success, in any event. One of the previous instances of similar dire miscasting came three and a half decades earlier when western icon John Wayne wound up starring as Genghis Khan in 1956's The Conqueror. This Howard Hughes-produced spectacle (actually filmed in 1954) became an instant monument to miscasting and has gained legendary status as an example of wrongheadedness in not only casting, but in scripting as well. Sadly, it also gained fame for its deadly postscript involving a large number of the cast and crew involved in its making.
The story goes that Mr. Wayne, who had one remaining film commitment on an RKO contract, was sitting in actor-turned-director Dick Powell's office one day when Powell had to excuse himself for a while. When he returned, Wayne was reading a script that had been earmarked for disposal, a 12th century epic, written with Marlon Brando in mind, all about the early days of Mongol warrior Genghis Khan and how he united a variety of smaller tribes into a map-changing, powerful unit. Powell knew instantaneously that Wayne was all wrong for the part, but felt that he couldn't say no to The Duke.
Producer Howard Hughes, the air industry millionaire who played around in Hollywood for a time through his purchase of RKO, spared few expenses in mounting the production, believing that box office giant Wayne, along with color Cinemascope photography, location shooting and a supporting cast of solid performers could only result in success. Unfortunately, he underestimated just how ill at ease Wayne would seem when mouthing the preposterous lines of dialogue found in the script.
The film begins with rousing Victor Young music and shots from later moments in the film only to settle on a caravan of travelers. Leslie Bradley plays a tribal chieftain cutting through Wayne's land in order to escort his bride-to-be Susan Hayward, a Tartar princess, back to his homestead as soon as possible. Hayward, as anyone would when crossing desert terrain, lounges comfortably in a shaded wagon, situated on colorful pillows and assorted covers while wearing a flimsy, white, diaphanous gown. Maintaining her trademark bouffant hair - albeit with a long fall attached, her sole concession to looking the part was the upward shaping of her eyebrows.
Wayne and his blood-brother Pedro Armendariz come charging in to question Bradley about his presence. A blindfolded falcon rests on Wayne's right forearm (and for the life of me, I swear that there are moments when it is replaced with a dead, stuffed bird.) One glimpse of the curvaceous Hayward is all Wayne needs in order to proclaim his affection for her. I don't think I'm incorrect in assuming that there's something symbolic about him staring Hayward down intensely while simultaneously rubbing and stroking on his bird! (The falcon is never seen again after this stage of the film either.) He decides to humiliate Bradley and capture Hayward for his own. In just one example of the hooty dialogue this movie is filled with, he explains, “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.”
You can just imagine Wayne, who offers less than a scintilla of any attempt at an accent, mouthing this sort of language in the same drawling, halting way that he performed in countless westerns and war epics. His voice in this movie is strangely tinny and higher-pitched than most people might remember, somehow making the words sound even sillier and more anachronistic. If you ever saw his notorious one-line cameo in The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he played a Roman centurion present at Jesus' crucifixion (during which he exclaimed, “Truly, this man was the son of God”), and marveled at its inappropriate awfulness, then you know what this entire movie is like. He decided early on, and misguidedly, to play his role as a cowboy who happens to be Asian (or “Oriental” as was used back then.)
Anyway, back to the plot. Wayne's family in the film (apart from Armendariz, who is repeatedly referred to as his “blood-brother,” so we must assume they are not siblings in the purest form of the word) consists of his (not so) little brother William Conrad and his rather embittered mother Agnes Moorehead. (In real life, Ms. Moorehead was less than seven years Wayne's senior! They started 'em out early in those Mongol conqueror days...) Girthy Conrad is shown shirtless, bending an iron bar against his back in a show of strength. Moorehead chatters on about how she disapproves of Wayne's choice of bride while wearing what another online reviewer called “an abacus” on her head! Future western star Lee Van Cleef also appears as one of Wayne's chief warriors, outfitted with what seems to be an upturned, decorated flower pot on his noggin! Almost all of the beefcake in this movie is on the husky, burly side, with Van Cleef being the leanest and fittest in sight. (In fact, he looks quite tiny from the side, as shown here on the right... with his flower pot.)
After defeating Bradley and his men, Wayne comes up to a spunky and indignant Hayward, still in her cart and tears her dress off completely in one fell swoop. (Hayward, apparently not wishing to go commando in front of Wayne, Bradley and a passel of extras recruited from the nearby Indian reservation, is clearly still wearing something strapless in front. Shame on the editor for not handling this better!) He then throws the stripped-off gown on to Bradley telling him to get back to his people and inform them of what has happened as Hayward darts under a nearby throw to cover herself. Back at Wayne's encampment, he delivers another howler of a line that has taken on special significance in these more recent times when he instructs Armendariz to see to “the sharing of the booty” while staring at Hayward. Armendariz even chimes in, while indicating Hayward, “All of it?”
Hayward makes it clear that she will never acquiesce to Wayne to which he replies, “You're beautiful in your wrath.” With her still demonstrating reluctance, he gives her a good whallop across the face! She then, sensing discord between the men and knowing that that both find her irresistible, tries to pit Armendariz against Wayne by offering herself up to him in exchange for means of escape. He will have none of it, tempting as it is and has his own turn at roughing her up (see above.) She was supposed to have a scene involving a black panther (a tiny snippet of which still remains) in which she kicked it in the rear, but there were many issues. The panther was so ill-tempered that it went to maul her, then it was replaced with a puma painted black, but the beast kept licking all of the paint off itself!
Part of Wayne's plan for regional domination includes pairing up with wealthy, obese Khan Thomas Gomez. This meeting affords us the chance to enjoy one of those loony, 1950s palace dances in which the audience sits on thrones or cushions, drinking and nibbling on various delicacies, while waves of brightly-hued dancing girls come out onto the floor to do their thing. This is possibly the most colorful part of the movie as fuchsia, aquamarine and pale green swathed ladies come out to swirl and twirl themselves around, to the delight of Gomez and Wayne. Solo dancer Sylvia Lewis, wearing a skintight, fringed get-up that can't possibly have anything at all to do with 12th century Mongolia and carried in by four hunks in brown tights, gives it her all, while the men's adoration of her talent starts Hayward on a slow boil.
Feeling a brewing mixture of fury, resentment, insult and jealousy, Hayward finally throws down her cloak and decides to perform a dance of her own. She not only wants to prove that she's every bit the sultry siren as what has performed before her, but she also wants to take the opportunity to slay her captor/husband Wayne. So onto the floor she goes, writhing and undulating to music she has never heard before until she climactically picks up two swords, one which is discarded before long and the other which she phallically plays about with until it's time to plunge it toward Wayne. You can't tell in this black and white publicity photo, but the scarf she's wielding is a fiery red. Hayward underwent six weeks of Terpsichorean training in order to perform this number.
This has been noted in various sources as Hayward's dancing debut in the movies, though that isn't the case at all. She played tragic vocalist Jane Froman in With a Song in My Heart in 1952 and danced a lavish number with a tuxedo-clad partner. In fact, she (unintentionally) showed more skin in that routine than she did in her “steamy” number here, thanks to the fact that her body stretched up to embrace her partner, but her stiff dress bodice decided to stay where it was, causing a brief glimpse of her right breast that went virtually undetected in the film for years! High-definition video brings the situation, er, out into the open now...
Anyway, in time, Hayward escapes back to her people and Wayne is captured and put into bondage. Strapped to a massive yoke of timber, he continues to defy his captors. Hayward's father lets out this gem, “Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures.” He is summarily treated like a dog, chained out in the back until for some reason Hayward decides that she actually cares for him after all.
She, with the help of her handmaid Jeanne Gerson, arranges for him to escape from the camp. Once free and clear of the enemy, he reunites with his family and they make plans to attack. Reigning Khan Gomez, however, has a traitor in his midst, a seer who wants him dead and replaced by Wayne as the new Khan. The seer (John Hoyt) comes to Wayne and cunningly convinces him to lay siege to Gomez's palace. Hoyt (on the right above), by the way, an actor with crystalline blue orbs, offers up his rendition of how to play Asian by scarcely opening his eyes throughout the film, peering through slits while barely moving his features. Clocking in on my television too late to make the cut for my recent post on movie stars and their bathtubs, we are also “treated” to the site of hefty Gomez wallowing around in a sumptuous bubble bath complete with milky blue water!
The scene is brief, but soon he's emerging into the waiting arms of two fleshy, virtually topless manservants (who seem to have noticeable difficulty keeping a straight face!) They are given the not inconsiderable task of swathing Gomez in a cumbersome kimono and then retiring to the sidelines to either guard the door or fan him with a large feathered stick. Then a flock of ladies comes in to pamper and perfume the rotund Khan. Basically, any scene involving Gomez is an opportunity to find camp in the film.
When Armendariz is captured by Hayward's hatchet-faced (literally, take a closer look!) father de Corsia, he is put through every conceivable torture known to them (including, natch, Chinese water torture) for several days until he, too, is aided by Hayward, whose loyaties have slowly shifted away from her own people to Wayne and his. By the way, get a load of the hooty, mop-like hat on the extra to the right of Susan in this shot.
The whole thing becomes messy with Wayne suddenly appointed Khan, but having lost the trust of blood-brother Armendariz, yet finally aligned with Hayward. (In actuality, Khan and his bride had been married as youths in an arranged union.) Near the finale, Armendariz has what seems to be a bizarre request yet appears to have a basis in historical fact. The story comes to a close as Wayne is about to embark on his quest to rule most of the known world. According to the narrator, the children of his and Hayward's loins would rule half the known world for a century. A simply staggering shot of a serpentine caravan of men and wagons sojourning through the desert signals the end. It's a happy ending only if you weren't one of the reported forty-million people who were slaughtered in the Mongol campaigns! Posters for the film (many of which either reduce or eliminate his Fu Manchu-style mustache and substitute his regular hair for the moppet-style wig he sports here) emphasized the dramatic and passionate qualities of the story and visuals that only come across so-so in the finished product. Lord knows the truth of the actual times was far more vicious than anything even hinted at on screen. Some of the methods of killing documented from this time include being boiled alive, the mass murder of villages (everyone taller than the axle of a cart wheel), being crushed under a heavy wooden platform, having molten silver poured into one's ears and eyes and even trophy-like pyramids being made from the heads of massacred villagers! Taking this into consideration, one wonders why anyone would attempt to fashion a heroic story out of the figure of Genghis Khan in the first place!
This was the last movie that Howard Hughes ever produced. Jet Pilot (also starring Wayne) was released after it, but had been made previously. Ironically, though is wasn't much of a hit in the U.S., it was a success in foreign markets (likely because Wayne was dubbed into whichever language, thus eliminating the movie's chief flaw.) In later years, the reclusive and increasingly obsessive Hughes bought up every print of the $6 million movie at a cost of $12 million in order to prevent it from being seen! It was out of circulation entirely until about 1974, by which time Hughes was near death, rarely making any of his own decisions and reportedly watching The Conqueror over and over and over (when he wasn't screening Ice Station Zebra, his favorite movie!)
One reason Hughes bought back the film was a sense of guilt due to the fact that he'd sent the cast and crew to a Utah desert location that was dangerously close to the site of some recent nuclear testing. In the years following the filming, more and more people involved in it began to develop cancer, at a rate far more significant than would be statistically likely. In addition to having his people baking and rolling around in the infected sand for all those weeks, he also had 60 tons of the stuff brought back to Hollywood in order to ensure that the landscape of the scenes shot indoors would match up properly. Of course, Hughes had no way of knowing this and had even been assured by the U.S. government that there was no danger. Still, it was tough for him to live with the results of his innocent actions. This is one dusty, dusty movie and it's kind of gut-wrenching to watch it now and see how all that sand was constantly kicked up and distributed onto everything and everyone.
Powell, who had managed to develop from a boy singer and cinematic leading man into a highly successful television producer and director, had been married to June Allyson since 1945 (perhaps possessing an aversion to the word Dick, she unceasingly referred to him as "Richard" at all times.) In the years after 1956's The Conqueror, he worked on Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater and The Dick Powell Show, both successful anthologies. In January of 1963, however, he died of lymphoma at the age of fifty-eight.
Mexican-born Armendariz (seen below right with Russian-born Gerson) had worked with Wayne before on Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers (both 1948) and with Hayward in Tulsa (1949.) He came down with kidney cancer in 1960. In 1963, while filming From Russia with Love, he developed severe pains in his hips, bad enough to prevent him from completing all his scenes, after which his condition was deemed terminal. Rather than suffer any more or continue to live while under oppressively heavy pain medication, he shot himself in the heart on June 18th of that year. He was fifty-one. (Incidentally, his son, actor Pedro Armendariz Jr, went on to work with Wayne himself in 1969's The Undefeated and 1970's Chisum.)
Moorehead (who is profiled more extensively elsewhere at this site) would go on to make many more film appearances until her TV role of Endora on Bewitched endeared her to legions of viewers. That series ended (after eight seasons) in 1972 and by 1974 she was felled by uterine cancer that had spread to her lungs. Legend has it that, upon her deathbed she looked at her longtime friend Debbie Reynolds and said, “I never should have taken that part.” In retrospect, it was a rotten part and a foolish one and certainly not one worth risking one's life over, though neither she nor anybody else ever had an inkling about that.
Hayward had worked in two prior films with Wayne herself, Reap the Wild Wind in 1942 and The Fighting Seabees in 1944. She'd been nominated for Oscars for 1947's Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, 1949's My Foolish Heart, 1952's With a Song in My Heart and 1955's I'll Cry Tomorrow. Her drive to win the statuette led her to take on more and more daring and showy parts until her film I Want to Live! in 1958 finally resulted in a win. By then, her peers were calling the movie, “I Want an Oscar!” She's legendary, of course, for her 1967 turn as fire-breathing Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls. In 1972, she was diagnosed with brain cancer and was forced to retire after The Revengers. The scrappy fighter pulled herself together as well as she could to made a final public appearance at the 1974 Oscars, on the arm of former costar Charlton Heston, but was dead on March 14th, 1975 at the age of fifty-seven.
Wayne was, by 1956, one of Hollywood most successful and iconic stars. In 1954, he had produced and starred in the big hit The High and the Mighty, following it up the next year with the less amazing The Sea Chase with Lana Turner (in which he was playing another atypical role, a German naval officer, again with no accent) and Blood Alley with Lauren Bacall. His dreadful performance in The Conqueror happened to come in the same year as one of his best in The Searchers. (It's entirely possible, in fact, that the specter of his ghastly Gengis Khan portrayal prevented him from winning an Academy Award nomination for the latter movie!) Believe it or not, considering that he's not exactly skinny in this, he went on a crash diet for the role and was popping diet pills like Tic Tacs throughout the filming.
Unlike a lot of contemporary movie fans, I “get” The Duke and his screen persona and often enjoy his movies (probably due to having had a stepfather who practically lived on reruns of them while I was growing up.) Leaving politics aside, I admire the type of forthright people he usually played and also typically enjoy the caliber of talent he tended to work for and with, so I generally enjoy his films. This one, though, is an exception.
Within the small range of talent that he had, he could be quite masterful. One-time costar Miss Joan Crawford probably said it best when she stated, “Get John out of the saddle and you've got trouble” (though he was also strong in war movies.) He did have a saddle in this, but he's just so wrong for the role, with that cowboy swagger and his patented method of speaking clanking up against the ungainly dialogue!
In 1964, Wayne had one entire lung removed due to cancer, but continued to work. He had been declared “cancer free” by about 1969, but in the late '70s, he developed cancer of the stomach and it claimed him on June 11th, 1979. He was seventy-two. Thus, the director and four of the primary stars died of cancer. That wasn't the end, though. It turned out that of the 220 cast and crew members associated with the film, about 45% of them (no fewer than 91 people) developed cancer, a rate that defies the normal ratio for a group of people. It has been suggested that the diseases and deaths have more to do with smoking than the radiation present at the movie site, but the fact remains that quite a few people became very ill in the wake of filming this movie. (More than a few get a little nauseous watching it!) Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991, but was eighty-five and Gerson died the year after of cancer, but was eighty-seven. Others died in other ways, such as Gomez, who perished after a serious car accident, or Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon and Van Cleef, who died from heart attacks.
On a brighter note, the solo dancer Lewis is still alive today at age eighty, though as strictly a performer on the palace set, absent of any sand, she was not exposed to this controversial soil in the way others had been. Likewise, Patricia Tiernan, who played the virtually invisible role of Gomez's wife, is also still with us at almost eighty-one. Conrad, who could hardly be described as a “healthy liver” considering his weight, also managed to avoid the “curse” and lived to be seventy-three. He was the star of two successful crime dramas, Cannon and Jake and the Fatman (with Cannon demonstrating a sometimes startling amount of physical exertion and prowess.) He died in 1994 of congestive heart failure.
The Conqueror eventually found its way onto bad movie lists rather prominently. It made the cut in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved, where it was listed alphabetically, and onto the Top Ten list of worst films ever in The Book of Lists. Naturally, there have been many, many successors to these dubious titles since then. Even though the movie is fairly rotten at times, almost any current multiplex today would be showing movies every bit as bad or worse, so sorry is the state of mainstream cinema at present. At least it offers striking scenery captured in widescreen cinematography, elaborate costumes, mammoth, skillfully-coordinated battle scenes with real men (each one elaborately costumed accordingly) and real horses (mistreated as they were, the poor things) and gorgeous music. It was a solidly-crafted movie that happened to have at least one completely inappropriate actor starring in it. That's something that even Howard Hughes and all his millions couldn't conquer.