Capsule Review of the Week: 'The Conqueror' (1956) May Be Duke's Most Embarrassing Film

John Wayne as Temujin and Susan Hayward as Bortai in a scene from The Conqueror.

OK, whose big fat idea was this, anyway?! (The answer, apparently, was Howard Hughes, who was then head of RKO, which produced this picture.) Seriously, John Wayne as a Mongol warlord?! She-so-white Susan Hayward as a Tartar princess? A film about Asians with hardly an Asian to be seen. The dialogue is embarrassing beyond comprehension (Mother: “Kumlik’s daughter? Spawn of evil! Let your slaves have their sport with her. I will not have her within our tents.” Wayne: “I say who stays in our tents. This woman is for my pleasure.”) Don’t be surprised if your ears start to bleed.

And after all that, you still want to know the plot?! Fine. Temujin (Wayne), later to be known as Gengis Khan, and his horde attack the caravan of Targutai and steal Targutai’s fiancee, Bortai (Hayward). Targutai soon seeks his revenge, while Temujin is busy trying to sweep Bortai off her feet with his bravery and falconry skill. (Had enough yet or shall I keep going? Trust me, that was plenty.)

One must wonder whether Duke was intoxicated when he signed the contract after reading the script—if he even read the script in advance. The Conqueror is often described as Wayne’s worst role ever--which is saying a lot, considering his uncredited bit part as a corpse in 1931’s The Deceiver. The production co-stars Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, and William Conrad, expert actors all, whose skills were sundered in this egregious stinkeroo and who were probably kicking themselves for years afterward. In other words, you have no choice but to watch it, post haste.

Featured actors: John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz (Pedro Armendáriz), Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, John Hoyt, William Conrad, Ted de Corsia, Leslie Bradley, Lee Van Cleef, Peter Mamakos, Leo Gordon, and Richard Loo

Screenplay by Oscar Millard

Directed by Dick Powell

Produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: January 24, 1956

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