The Yellow Conk(ueror): Cold War in Buckets
On the contemporary American poster for Dick Powell’s The Conqueror, John Wayne declares ‘I am Temujin ... Barbarian ... I fight! I love! I conquer ... like a Barbarian!’ To plunge deeper into the quantity of the posters whose greasy laminate graced the world is to discover a Mexican and Spanish release lumbered with a line which, translated, reads ‘This Tatar woman is intended for me (by divine right?) and my blood says to have her!’. The astonishing inaccuracy whose wreath abounds this, the movie’s central conceit, is not simply limited to the ‘romance’ - shoehorned enough it would have better served relieving some distress from the film’s maltreated equine component than being forcibly injected into our deflowered eyes - the anachronism is permeative. It would be easy enough to construct a diatribe based solely on the questioning of Hughes’ sanity, to call to light the suitability of Powell as helmsman, to lift a pondering eyebrow at the principal cast and their presumed hourly dunking sessions in the yellow-face bucket, still yet to simply discuss the Pentagon’s sheepish fingers-crossed wish that, oh God, please let them not be ‘the ones who killed John Wayne.’ Cultural, historical and real implications aside, the most deeply bitter pill to swallow in this medicine cabinet of inadequacy is the one nestled in a corner overshadowed by its crowding brethren. Behind the charged exploitation, rampant anachronism and isolationist exoticism lies the simple fact that this cinematic atrocity fails to conform to its own self-extolled standards - the quality and quantity of barbarism on display here is frighteningly lacking in substance. Oh my, where to begin?
The seven painful minutes of latex pornography unceremoniously dumped into the canister seems a place good enough to start. The section is one which fits with greater ill than any other aspect of a film that, almost by self-definition, fits less well than Nixon would have in von Westphalen’s lap. Existing to provide seven minutes of latex distraction from the singularly unpleasant experience in its surrounds, the scene concerns a ‘dusky Mongolian beauty’ whose sequinned, feather-shaking performance is laid on for Wayne and attendant army. The pointless, bizarre hallucination is symptomatic of a film whose ahistorical illness runs through its every culturally poisoned frame. Wayne, for a reason known only to his apparently itinerant gods, is alternately observed upholding a terrible attempt at Mongolian-by-way-of-Horsham before slipping to the trademarked, time-stamped drawl of gunfights at O.K. Corrals. His makeup, similarly, is a maddening exercise in futility and one whose itinerance is no less prevalent. He transitions between a face stained with unknowable dye and what can only be ‘burnt cowboy umber’. His eyebrows (still out for judgement: the dubious substance by which the forehead dusters were affixed) drift about on his face like dust bowl victims and the ‘slant’ provided to his eyes by gum, thread and dreams is so ineffectual he might as well be trying to express a constant Adam Sandler anger to his screen partners. The same extends to said screen partners, outside of the ‘Tatar’ Botai whose Swedish complexion and Irish frizzies have been preserved in all of their cinemascope glory. That we are asked to believe Susan Hayward is a Mongolian princess beggars belief. In her Teutonic case, not even mild attempt at cinematic assistance in the suspension of disbelief was made. This is to speak none at all of the roving Native American Mongolian hordes.
Nevertheless, peering beneath the film’s lumbered veneer to examine the lurking core of damp (or dry, given Utah’s 120 fahrenheit) rot reveals somehow a state of accuracy even worse than would otherwise be believed. Thematically, the film swings wildly between incessant moralising and three (or more, definition dependant) scenes of rape between a man and woman who, according to accepted historical fact, were betrothed to one another before their first decades on the planet. The romance is, in fact, so simultaneously repulsive and rudimentary that it would disgrace You’ve Got Mail to describe it as such. That its feeble wither is enough to reduce one of the greatest conquerors that ever lived to a sap lacking pathos or even weak sentimentalism simply refuses to add up. The deeply undignified posturing that plays out between Temujin and his ‘blood brother’ Jamuga involves one for not a moment and serves only to make feeble attempt at driving an emotional plexus entirely unsupported by the dismaying swamp of its surrounds.
Similarly, the film which so touts its vision to depict the bloodthirsty conquering of a brutal, incisive ‘barbarian’ is most frighteningly lacking in the stark, harsh and frenzied barbarism to which it owes its existence. Sure, Temujin arbitrarily snaps the neck of a comrade, or plunges his spear into the depths of an enemy combatant on occasion, but it is tempered every time by the bolt of an in-built moraliser. Every stab, every puncture, every splash of blood is accompanied by American conservative commentary on the ‘savagery of those goddamn communists... pre-communists... foreigners.’ Perhaps it’s the attachment of John Wayne - the icon of the militaristic American right wing sporting a yellow face and a pair of dodgy eyebrows, raping a Mongolian red-head Irish-Swede across a Utah Gobi desert deeply contaminated by the most recent round of US Government testing that provides one with first a belly-guffaw and second a belly-lurch when you realise the insidious nature of the goings-on televised before your eyes. It’s a film that neatly provides summation of early-Cold-war American concepts of isolationism and (in this instance) truly disgraceful ethnocentricity. It is loud, it is inconsiderate and it runs around itself in a canine-like attempt to manifest its own grandeur at the expense of everything and anything else. Hm.
Nonetheless, what could have been an embarrassing blip in the history books - forgotten along with many of its contemporaneous ilk - was prevented from being such by a legacy that far outmodes the stupidity of the film that caused it all. Not only did The Conqueror sever Howard Hughes’ fertile thirty year relationship with the film industry (speaking only to his rear-end duties - the man’s butt-naked cinema sessions would be brought to a close only by his death), it collapsed RKO Pictures and gave 91 of its 200 principal cast and crew terminal cancer. The post-mortemic figure of 91 does not account for that multitude of extras brought in to serve those ‘spectacular’ battle sequences. The entire picture was conducted on lots and locations within range described in severities varying from ‘intense’ to ‘excessive’ of high-volume US Governmental nuclear testing. The Conqueror was so utterly catastrophic that its billionaire patreon and his self-abnegation parted with twelve million dollars to recall every copy in existence. Until Universal acquired the rights in 1979, partaking of the disaster was impossible to any who had not been party to its creation.
Howard Hughes, grey matter spent of its brimming youth, stands alone in a darkened cinema running for his sole benefit. His clothing absent as his sanity, the cancerous curse which he cast upon the undeserving fills out the lines in his face with its repeating flicker. In his eyes there is an echo of the Pentagon’s sentiment: please let him not be the one that killed John Wayne. There is a lingering sadness to the trail this offensive dog's breath of a movie left in its wake. Such twinge of overt melancholia as the prospect of ailing geniuses, nuclear cancer and studio death conjures should not, however, requisition our ire from the film that itself could not conjure the same twinge in its entire running time. Outshined in depth by Wayne’s yellow-face bucket, surpassed in accuracy by its extraneous toxophilites, in a pre-Watergate America the film represents something akin to a despicable, back-bent president whose tapes could only be suppressed for so long.
Powell, Dick, and Oscar Millard. The Conqueror. RKO Radio Pictures, 1956.
Bona, Damien. Starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan: Hollywood's All-time Worst Casting Blunders. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publ. Group, 1996. Print.
Herzog, Rudolph, and Jefferson S. Chase. A Short History of Nuclear Folly. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014. Print.