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December 2017

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Bad literature

The Conqueror (1956)





So I actually watched this whole thing over the weekend. It was surprisingly enjoyable. The plot is quite rapey; it focuses mostly around Temijin, the future Genghis Khan, and his lust for Bortai, played by Susan Hayward.

The plot is a cross between a bog-standard sword and sandal movie and a bog-standard 1950s western. John Wayne plays John Wayne, like he always does. There's a strong contrast between his performance, and those of actors with a broader range, like Susan Hayward, who gets to hooch dance in the film, or John Hoyt, who gives a highly enjoyable performance as a perfidious shaman.

The mummery of identity politics must be kowtowed to, for there are those who will feign outrage that a White man played a Mongol, no matter how anachronistic that kind of malarkey is applied to a 1956 picture. Here's a clue: he's not; he's still John Wayne, playing the John Wayne character. The role was apparently written for Marlon Brando, who would have tried harder and failed. And that would have deprived us of the toe-curling pleasure of watching John Wayne deliver lines like these:

- Temujin, to his mother (Agnes Moorehead): "I greet you, my mother."

- "She is a woman - much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?"

- "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. "

- "Come and take me, mongrels - if you dare. While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see your cowardly faces, your treacherous heads will not be safe on your shoulders. For I am Temujin, the Conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army defeat me. "

The purple prose of the script, the bondage-driven sword and sandal clichés, the cast of White and Hispanic actors (Pedro Armendáriz as Jamuga, Thomas Gomez as Wang Khan), and American Western scenery, full of cavalry chases and the cast riding around in odd barbarian costumes, all mean that this film utterly fails to convey any sense that these characters are historical figures or that this film is a convincing attempt to portray twelfth-century Mongolia or China. The actual effect of the picture and plot is something even more bizarre still than that.

Imagine, instead, a Biblical pageant of an obscure heretical faith. There was some money spent on this; it has production values. And that's what it comes off as: imagine a 1950s era Biblical costume drama, only with even odder costumes, and an obviously American setting, telling an apocryphal blood and thunder story out of the Book of Mormon or some similar fiction. Which makes this a weird and enjoyable motion picture experience. If only the Book of Mormon were half this cool.

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