In the Twelfth Century, the lands of the Gobi desert were subject to fierce fighting over who would control them, but there was one man, Temujin (John Wayne), who was to rise up as their leader and found the largest empire the world ever knew under the name Genghis Khan. Before he did that, however, he had to establish himself, and he was already the leader of the Mongol tribe when he happened to notice a band of Tartars travelling through his territory. What really caught his eye was the princess who they were escorting, Bortai (Susan Hayward), and he made up his mind to take her for himself - whether she wanted him to or not...
The Conqueror was one of the worst films ever made if you listen to popular opinion, and while it's no masterpiece, it's hard to argue the case for the defence when so much of it was simply poorly thought out. Many do not trust Hollywood with accurate depictions of historical fact, and it was films like this one which did the damage to their reputation, leaving apologists to say "Relax, it's only a movie", but since when was casting The Duke as one of the most revered Asians of all time excusable? Sadly he had thought himself ideal for the role, claiming he saw Genghis Khan as a "gunfighter", although after the film became a notorious fiasco he was not so pleased with it, and indeed regretted ever wanting to make it.
Yet that is not the main reason The Conqueror was so derided, for there was a tragic side to the affair. It had been filmed at the site of Utah atomic bomb tests which had occurred a couple of years previously, and once many of the cast and crew began to succumb to cancer, of a far higher percentage than any other production of this size, fingers began to point at the radiation in the location being the cause. Therefore this became known as the film that killed John Wayne, not to mention Susan Hayward, director Dick Powell, and too many others to mention, which rendered the already terrible reputation it had even worse, as it was one film which would have been better off never having been made at all.
It was a Howard Hughes production, his last, and rumours conflict about how he felt about it himself. Certainly he paid a lot of money to buy the rights to it, and kept it out of circulation for years, but if that was because he loved it so much he wanted it all to himself or due to his embarrassment over the disaster, is unclear. It fit into his man's man view of the world, or at least how he liked his entertainment, so perhaps it was a bit of both, but there's a misogyny to the story which is hard to enjoy, even as the laughter dries up when you know the fates of the filmmakers. Although, granted lines like "Say, you're beautiful in your wrath!" delivered in Wayne's unmistakable drawl do the aims to seriousness no favours for a start, but even then this isn't much fun.
Bortai is presented as a woman needing to be tamed by Temujin, and not with bunches of flowers and candlelit dinners. No, he prefers kidnap and force to win her over, which she is not best pleased about, yet by the end she has done an abrupt U-turn and is helping her captor in beating his enemies and joining him in ruling the continent, all without apparent motive other than it's convenient to the script, and the conventions that said the leading man must get the leading lady by the final reel. In between, there's a lot of blood and thunder as the Mongols and Tartars beat each other up in a contest of oneupmanship, and it grows very monotonous, leaving a game of spotting an actual Asian in amongst all these Western actors with starched eyelids your only hope of amusement (Hayward doesn't even bother to use that type of makeup, red hair and all). With a dancing sequence standing in for any sexual activity, The Conqueror is typical of historical epics of its era, but you'd be hard pressed to divine much to amuse here: even bad movie buffs will be struggling. Music by Victor Young.