In the annals of bad movie casting, there is one perfectly miscast role that shines brighter than all the rest, brighter than Humphrey Bogart as the Rocky Horror-esque baddie at the heart of The Return of Doctor X, brighter than Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough, brighter than Steven Seagal in any movie he has ever been in: we're talking about John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, tricked-out with a droopy black moustache, a ratty Beatle wig and the finest "Asian" eyes the RKO makeup department could devise, growling lines like, "I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, 'Take her!'" Just thinking about the prospect of such a thing makes you feel all woozy and discombobulated; it sounds more like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel than anything that ever really happened. But happen it did, my friends. Glory be to God.
According to Wayne biographer Alan G. Barbour, Wayne would shudder when, in later years, anybody mentioned the picture, one of the biggest bombs of his long career. But the Duke had only himself to blame, for it was Wayne who insisted to director Dick Powell that he should play the part of the Mongolian warrior. In The 50 Worst Films of All Time, Powell recalled the incident thusly: "I asked [Wayne] if he was serious, and he said he was. I was unprepared for the situation, but Wayne was insistent." Thankfully, the director eventually caved ("Who am I to turn down Wayne?"), and thus a masterpiece of trash was loosed upon an unsuspecting world.
Wayne approached his role with deadly earnestness ("The way the screenplay reads, it is a cowboy picture, and that is how I am going to portray Genghis Khan. I see him as a gunfighter"), and he brings his familiar drawl and rangy cowboy poses intact to the Gobi desert, sometimes hardly seeming to notice that his 10-gallon hat has been replaced by a spiked metal helmet. When the film's casting people saw just how silly this berhonkey looked stomping around in his Khan makeup, they apparently decided their best hope of making him appear a little more Asian was to cast somebody even whiter as his leading lady, and so titian-haired temptress Susan Hawyard joined the cast as Bortai, the Tartar princess. Her scenes with Wayne are a miracle of badness, as clumsily written as they are ineptly acted as they are kinky as all hell. (She: "For me, there is no peace while you live, Mongol!" He: "You're beautiful in your wrath!")
On hearing that producer Howard Hughes later spent 12 million bucks attempting to buy up every surviving print of the film, one might assume he was attempting to protect the dignity of himself and everyone else involved; in fact, the legendarily eccentric tycoon wanted the film all to himself, to screen over and over again in solitude during his long descent into gibbering madness. It's a depressing scene to contemplate—the aged Hughes, slumped beside the projector, fingernails 14 inches long, Kleenex boxes on his feet, etc.—but it's nothing compared to the lingering deaths by cancer endured by many of the film's cast and crew (including Wayne himself), who had the misfortune to have shot the picture within spitting distance of the army's A-bomb tests in the Utah desert. If any film was cursed, The Conqueror is it; people died to bring you this awful movie, so now that prints are once again available, the least you can do is trek up to Hollywood to see the thing for yourself.
The Conqueror screens with Survival City, an American, '50s propaganda short that looks at the sunny side of apocalypse, as Dad and Junior bond over the construction of a fallout shelter. Of course, given the current geo-political climate, a nuclear doomsday seems a lot more possible than it has in a long time, giving this stuff the kind of currency it hasn't enjoyed since the Reagan years. A splendid evening of atomic-themed gallows humor is guaranteed for all; eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow, we may fry.
THE CONQUEROR SCREENS WITH SURVIVAL CITY AT THE EGYPTIAN THEATRE, 6712 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD, (323) 466-3456. SAT., 9 P.M. $7-$8.
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