We see the opening text over a gorgeous long shot of southwest Utah's Escalante desert: "This story, though fiction, is based on fact." Cut to scrolling text as the camera pans across the bleak terrain:
"In the 12th century the Gobi Desert seethed with unrest…Petty chieftains pursued their small ambitions with cunning and wanton cruelty. Plunder and rapine were a way of life and no man trusted his brother. Out of this welter of treachery and violence there arose one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known, a conqueror whose coming changed the face of the world…"
Of course the Mongols, their flocks, and their neighbors didn't actually live in the waterless Gobi Desert, but further north in grassy steppes, rising toward forested hill country. And in any case, the flat, stony Gobi looks nothing like the rugged sagebrush desert around St. George, Utah.
The Conqueror stars on several lists of "Worst Movies Ever Made," thanks largely to the giggle factor of large, blue-eyed Caucasian hero John Wayne (Sgt. Stryker of The Sands of Iwo Jima, Rooster Cogburn of True Grit, etc. etc. etc.) cast in the role of short, stocky Asian, Temujin, later called Jenghiz (Genghiz, Chinggis, etc.) Khan. In contemporary terms, this would be roughly equivalent to casting Danny Glover or Samuel L. Jackson to play Erwin Rommel in a remake of The Desert Fox.
Not even a dental hygienist could find authentic Tartar in this movie. But Hollywood cosmetic artists had a long tradition of simulating Asian "looks" with shaved eyebrows, fake eyelids and rubber bands glued to the top of the head with spirit gum, all carefully concealed with makeup, to pull the corners of the eyes into a "slant." If you're willing to believe David Carradine as Kwai-chang Caine and Leonard Nimoy as a Vulcan, then you can probably suspend disbelief long enough to accept The Duke as The Khan. It could have been worse. According to Hollywood legend, the role was originally written for young Marlon Brando, but Wayne had the studio contract, and the movie had horses, so for him, it was just another Western. Many of the extras hired for the movie were Native Americans from nearby reservations; at least they look right.
With Howard Hughes' increasingly bizarre behavior driving the RKO studio toward bankruptcy, The Conqueror was no big-budget epic, but there was some surprisingly good research for the screenplay. The story of Temujin's early life and rise to power is drawn from one primary source, the Secret History of the Mongols. Based on oral tradition, it was written in Uighur script around the mid-14th century, preserved in Beijing's dynastic archives as a Chinese transliteration, and finally discovered and translated by Western scholars in the 19th century.
The story is certainly dramatic enough. Temujin was born in either 1162 or 1167, with a blood clot clenched in his infant fist; an omen of his future greatness as a warrior. He was the son of a Mongol chieftain, Yesugei, who ruled an area of steppes and woodland south of Lake Baikal. Yesugei was poisoned treacherously by a chief of the rival Tartar tribe. The Mongols were then decimated and scattered. Temujin's mother fled to the wilderness, surviving on wild plants with her 9-year old son and his immensely strong but dim-witted brother, Kesar. As he grew to manhood, Temujin performed bold deeds of horse theft and cattle rustling with his brothers, gaining the respect of the tough nomads and rising to lead the remnants of his tribe.
This is the point at which the film begins - about the year 1200. Targutai, chieftain of the Merkit tribe leads a strongly escorted caravan through the Mongol's diminished territory, bearing Bortai, a beautiful Tartar princess, home to be his wife. The convoy includes a huge ox-cart, bearing a yurt, the traditional round Mongol felt tent. This ox-cart is amazingly accurate in detail, based on a 14th century Chinese painting copied and published in many sources. Temujin leads his men in a surprise attack, humiliating Targutai (who is unhorsed and sent home on foot) and capturing a rich cargo of furs, along with Bortai, who turns out to be the daughter of the very chieftain who poisoned his father.
"I believe this Tartar woman is for me; my blood says take her!"
Just when you think the dialog cannot get any worse, there are howlers, like "See to the sharing of the booty," when Temujin returns to his camp. Bortai hates him with cold fury. His mother, tribal matriarch Hoerlun, hates Bortai. Bortai keeps trying to kill him. "You are beautiful in your wrath," he declares, smacking her around a little. Bortai makes an unsuccessful play for Jamuka, Temujin's blood brother, hoping to stir up jealousy. The vengeful Tartars stage a surprise night raid on Temujin's camp. Targutai is slain, but Temujin sees the innocent Jamuka coming out of Bortai's tent. We see jealousy beginning to Rear its Ugly Head.
Having offended powerful neighboring tribes, Temujin seeks an alliance with Wang Khan, the chubby, decadent ruler of "Urga," a rich Silk Road trading city of urbanized former steppe nomads who have assimilated Chinese culture. Wang Khan had befriended Temujin's father before his death. This is pure fiction: Urga is the old name of Ulaan Bataar, the modern capital of Mongolia. This city was not established until the 16th century. In the film it seems to represent the Xi Xia Empire ("Western Hsia"), a region of Inner Mongolia conquered by Jenghiz Khan in 1209. As a gift, Temujin brings Wang Khan the captured Tartar furs, and is lavishly entertained at a banquet, where Bortai is taunted into performing a sword dance. She seductively hurls a sword at Temujin, narrowly missing him. Hey, it's a love story.
The superstitious Wang Khan is under the influence of his wily court Shaman, a bizarre composite of Gandalf the Grey and Ming the Merciless. Shamanism was a major element of the Mongol religion, and the film accurately shows the ancient Chinese practice of interpreting the future by examining the intricate patterns of heat cracks on the roasted shoulder blade of a sheep. An actual Mongol shaman of this period probably would have been more like a Native American medicine man, relying on drug-induced trances to communicate with the spirit world.
The Shaman recognizes that Temujin is destined for greatness, and plots to manipulate this to his advantage. He persuades Wang Khan to seize Kesar and Jamuka as hostages.
Kesar uses his awesome strength to pull apart the bars of their prison, allowing Jamuka to escape, but poor Kesar is too big to fit through the gap, and he is stabbed to death by a guard.
While returning home to his camp, Temujin is ambushed, captured, taunted and abused by the Tartars. Yoked like an ox, and denied water under the burning sun, he is brought before the Tartar chief: "I would give thee the greeting you deserve, but I am bereft of spit!"
That night, Bortai secretly helps him to escape from certain slow death. Hey, it's a love story.
Temujin now rallies the tribes for a desperate attack on Urga. In one of the movie's more bizarre scenes, he climbs a hill to offer a prayer to the Sky God, "Send me men!" he begs.
The devious Shaman arrives, and leads a small party of disguised Mongols to the gates of Urga, where he persuades Wang Khan's guards to allow entry. Temujin, quickly seizes the city. The Shaman kills Wang Khan. Temujin, disgusted by such treachery, hacks the Shaman to death, discreetly off-camera. With much banging of gongs, Temujin is proclaimed supreme ruler, with the title Jenghiz Khan, meaning "Perfect Warrior-King" (this occurred in the year 1206). He offers Jamuka anything his heart desires; the loyal blood-brother asks only for a quick, bloodless death, to spare the Khan any future worry about his loyalty. Three's a crowd, and hey, it's a love story. Bortai and the Khan ride off into the sunset.
Narrator: "And for 100 years, the children of their loins ruled half the world."
Like so many historical epics of the 1950's, The Conqueror gets some small details right while missing major chunks of the Big Picture. For example, we see the Mongol use of flaming arrows by night and whistling arrows by day to signal commands. The Mongol banner, a standard of nine white yak tails mounted on three crossbars (4 - 3 - 2), is exactly right. But the bows seem to be standard-issue Robin Hood longbows from the studio armory, not the short composite recurved bows Mongol horsemen actually used. We see the use of lances with hooks, to unhorse an opponent, but there is little mounted archery, and too much man-to-man sword fighting in small, confused melees.
Mongol armies fought as tightly integrated ten-man teams, strictly forbidding such displays of personal heroism, but this is, after all, a Western, and the cowboy ethic of individualism trumps historical fidelity.
The swords are all wrong: exotic scimitars and Japanese samurai swords that look "Oriental", rather than the practical, slightly curved sabers that steppe nomads actually carried in this era. The costumes range from utterly whimsical to just about right - metal-studded leather jackets and steel caps with soft fabric flaps to protect the nape of the neck from sun and wind, not arrows. In Chinese paintings and sculptures of the Mongol era we see elaborate laminated composite armor worn by the elite lancers of the Khan's "Guard" (Kashik) and their horses. This probably came later, with increasing wealth, like the classic Mongol quilted silk jackets, after the conquest of China's silk-producing heartland.
The film's only concept of Mongol warfare seems to be sudden charges down impossibly steep gravel slopes. To be fair, the sophisticated Mongol tactics of feigned retreat and encirclement would be difficult to capture, even on the wide screen, without costly helicopter shots, and lots of mounted extras. The horses, of course, are too big to be steppe nomad ponies, and they wear Western bridles and saddles. If you look closely, the oxen seem to be Texas longhorn steers, a breed that Mongols might have appreciated, but never saw. There is, however, a brief cameo appearance by a properly two-humped camel.
The screenplay ends at the very beginning of Jenghiz Khan's unbroken career of victorious conquest, which ended only with his death in 1227. The conquest of China was completed by his son, Tolui; and grandson, Khubilai. One of the virtues of this movie, however is the relative complexity of the story line, with intricate conspiracies, sub-plots and subtleties that would probably baffle and irritate today's more impatient, moronic mass audience, which yearns for more graphic decapitation and disembowelment, and quicker progress from boy-meets-girl to soft-focus fornication.
The greatest shortcoming of this movie is its failure to show us what made Jenghiz Khan such an astonishing organizational genius and World-conqueror. This is a cultural problem: the classic Hollywood Western is a morality play, in which one strong, good man overcomes systemic Evil, and his own fears, to win the love of a good strong woman, establish Justice and ensure frontier Tranquillity. Not necessarily in that order... This is hard to reconcile with the biography of a man who declared: "The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions, To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms." These are typical values of a warrior culture based on hunting. To such warriors, those outside the tribe are not people; they are prey animals, who can be slaughtered for plunder or sport without remorse. The Mongols practiced systematic terrorism and mass genocide, 700 years before those terms were invented. To their civilized neighbors and victims, they were the "Devil's Horsemen," the incarnation of systemic Evil.
Sorry, that's just not how we think of John Wayne.
And yet Within a few generations of their world conquest, the warlike Mongols assimilated the values, religions and cultures of the peoples they conquered. In the time of Khubilai, it was said that a virgin carrying a bag of gold could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other in perfect safety. In the 17th century, the Manchu rulers of China completed the pacification of the Mongols by converting them to Tibetan Buddhism, one of the world's gentlest and most compassionate faiths.
The Conqueror had a tragic aftermath. The location was downwind from the Nevada nuclear test site, where dozens of above-ground fission bombs had been detonated since 1951. The film crew returned to Hollywood with 60 tons of local fallout-contaminated red sand for studio retakes. Out of 220 known cast and crew 91 were diagnosed with various cancers by 1984. In a population of that size and age distribution, the expected cancer incidence might have been about thirty. John Wayne and Susan Hayward both died of cancer in 1975, Agnes Moorehead in 1974, Dick Powell in 1963. Pedro Armendariz, after battling kidney and lymphatic cancer, killed himself in 1963.
Howard Hughes is said to have loved this movie, and withdrew it from distribution when it encountered a heavy barrage of critical mockery. The complex litigation surrounding Hughes' estate left the film rights in limbo for many years after his death. An MCA Home Video VHS tape, mastered from an inferior print, was released in 1983, and became a cult collectable. The new DVD version offers excellent sound, clarity, color fidelity and wide-screen aspect ratio.
At least one more movie has been made on this subject; a Chinese-language feature film titled Genghis Khan, shot in Inner Mongolia, and released in 1999. We have no information on crew exposure to fallout from the Lop Nor test site.