Action / Adventure
Directed by Dick Powell
Written By Oscar Millard
Produced by Dick Powell and Howard Hughes
Cinematography by Joseph La Shelle
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Cast: John Wayne as Temujin
Susan Hayward as Bortai
Pedro Armendariz as Jamuga
Agnes Moorehead as Hunlun
Thomas Gomez as Wang Khan
John Hoyt as Shaman
William Conrad as Kasar
Ted de Corsia as Kumlek
Leslie Bradley as Targutai
Lee Van Cleef as Chepei
Peter Mamakos as Bogurchi
This biographic epic retells the story of Genghis Khan, known to his troops as Temujin, and his rise to power in 12th century Mongolia. Temujin’s band of warriors stops a travelling caravan of the Merkit people, interrogating the Merkit leader Targutai as to his business. The Merkit people have long been the enemies of the Mongols, and Targutai is very proud to show Temujin his beautiful new bride to be, Bortai, the daughter of the Tartar clan. Temujin feigns indifference, riding off with his band, but later confesses to his blood brother that he secretly wants Bortai, and will do anything necessary to have her. Temujin’s blood brother, Jamuga, advises against this plan, knowing that it will only bring war among the tribes. Temujin will not be dissuaded from his plan however and orders his Mongols to raid the Merkit caravan. During the raid, the once haughty Targutai attempts to flee but is captured, along with Bortai. Temujin has Targutai brought to his tent, where he also has the lovely Bortai, and to prove his conquest, Temujin rips off Bortai’s dress, giving it to Targutai as a souvenir before releasing the man. Not everyone in the Mongols are pleased with the victory, however Temujin’s mother Hunlun is furious at Temujin’s behavior, as Bortai’s father was the killer of Hunlun’s husband. Temujin ignores her and turns to his new plaything, but Temujin grows furious as Bortai repeatedly ignores his commands to dance, once before his troops, and then later alone in his quarters, where she insults him as well. Temujin angrily dismisses her and orders her sent back to her tent.
In the middle of the night, Bortai sneaks out of her tent and goes to Jamuga, offering to give herself to him if he will help her escape. Jamuga refuses, remaining loyal to his blood brother. While Bortai is in her tent, the tent is attacked by Targutai and the rest of his men. Temujin slays Targutai, and hides with Bortai in a ravine, kissing her forcefully. This time Bortai submits to the barbarian’s passions. Knowing that Bortai’s father, Kumlek, will come for his daughter, Temujin schemes to solidify his powerbase by creating a story that the Tartars are planning an attack on Urga, the capitol city of Temujin’s ally Wang Khan. As Temujin is preparing to leave for Urga, he informs Bortai that she will be sleeping in his tent from now on, and that he will be giving her dowry furs to Wang Khan as a peace offering. Infuriated, Bortai insults Temujin again, and he slaps her.
When they arrive at Wang Khan’s palace, Wang Khan has a banquet prepared for his guest, and Temujin takes great pleasure in complimenting Wang Khan’s dancing girls, knowing that this is angering Bortai. Bortai does her own dance, completing it by throwing a sword at Temujin’s head, narrowly missing him. Temujin sends her away, and goes to a meeting with Wang Khan regarding the Tartar people’s eventual attack on Urga. Wang Kahn sends for his shaman and has him consult with the spirits regarding the matter. The shaman states that the spirits are with them, and approves the move. However ,in private, the shaman confers with Temujin, informing him that the Wang Khan has grown weak and that the city of Urga needs a strong ruler like Temujin.
Temujin leaves Urga with a compliment of his own Mongols and warriors from Wang Khan’s army to attack the Tartar. Kumlek and his band ambush Temujin’s warriors, wounding Temujin, who retreats to a cave alone. Kumlek rescues his daughter and returns to his camp. Meanwhile, Jamuga finds Temujin and helps him. Jamuga then goes to the Tartar camp and asks to join, claiming to be a deserter. While Jamuga’s claims fool her father, Bortai has seen Jamuga’s loyalty first hand and knows he is lying. She has soldiers follow him, and they discover Temujin’s cave when Jamuga returns there and capture him, binding him to an ox cart and forcing him to pull it back to their camp.
Kumlek is pleased by Temujin’s capture and orders him put to a slow and torturous death.
That night Temujin escapes with the help of Bortai, who confesses her love for him. Temujin returns to the Mongol camp to discover that Jamuga has taken over the clan. Infuriated, Temujin accuses Jamuga of betraying him, but Jamuga sufficiently proves his loyalty to Temujin, and resumes his place as Temujin’s second in command. Temujin orders Jamuga and an incredibly strong warrior, Kasar, to return to Wang Khan and inform him that Temujin needs Wang Khan’s troops by the next full moon. However, once they arrive, the shaman convinces Wang Khan that Jamuga is plotting against him, and that Temujin is most likely dead. Wang Khan orders Jamuga and Kasar imprisoned, but Kasar is able to bend the bars, allowing Jamuga to escape. Jamuga escapes the city of Urga, but Kasar is discovered and killed. On Jamuga’s journey back to the Mongol camp, he is ambushed and captured by Kumlek.
At the next full moon, along with Wang Khan’s troops, the shaman meets with Temujin, and tells him to use Wang Khan’s own troops to attack Urga, as the guards will open the gates for the soldiers. Temujin follows the shaman’s advice and leads the assault on Urga. Going to the palace to confront Wang Khan, Temujin witnesses the shaman assassinate Wang Khan in his bed. For this act, Temujin slays the shaman. With their leader dead, the rest of Wang Khan’s soldiers join Temujin, and agree to fight with him against Kumlek and the Tartars.
Meanwhile, Kumlek has been torturing Jamuga to discover the whereabouts of Temujin, yet Jamuga remains loyal and tells Kumlek nothing. Jamuga is rescued by Bortai, who takes Jamuga to her tent to conceal him from the guards. At that moment, Temujin arrives with his army and attacks the Tartar camp. As he does so he sees Jamuga in Bortai’s tent. The battle ensues, and after its completion, Temujin again believes that Jamuga has betrayed him, but Bortai convinces Temujin of Jamuga’s loyalty. Jamuga proclaims his loyalty to his blood brother, whom he dubs as Genghis Khan, or Perfect warrior, but Jamuga knows that in his heart, Temujin will never fully trust him again. Unable to live with this stain to his honor, he asks Temujin to kill him. With a heavy heart, Temujin honor’s his brother’s request to die with dignity.
In a now infamous reaction to filming the outdoor scenes in St. George, Utah, which was downwind of the U.S. Government’s nuclear test site in Nevada, 91 members of the 220 cast and crew developed cancer, and 46 people affiliated with the movie died from it. Pedro Armendariz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960, and once it was confirmed terminal in 1963, committed suicide. John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorhead all died of cancer in the 1970s. John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. Although the film makers knew about the nuclear tests, the government confirmed that the tests caused no risk to the public. It is widely believed that the high amount of cancer that affected the cast and crew was indirectly caused by, or exacerbated by, the effects of nuclear radiation, although skeptics point out that several, notably Wayne and Morehead, were also heavy smokers. This belief has lead to the film being dubbed an “RKO Radioactive Picture”, a play on the RKO Radio studio that produced the film. In a 1980 article in People magazine, regarding the radioactivity from the site and the large outbreaks of cancer in the cast and crew, a scientist from the Pentagon’s Defense Nuclear Agency is quoted as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”
After shooting at the Utah site, Howard Hughes also ordered 60 tons of the dirt from the area to be brought back to sound stages to film the tent scenes, so that the sets would have continuity with the outdoor footage.
After the film’s initial theatrical release, Howard Hughes bought the rights to all existing copies of the film for $12 million. Hughes held the film in private for a very long time, not allowing it to be seen by audiences until its television debut in 1974, after Paramount pictures had repurchased the rights.
Although universally panned as a gross miscast of John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan, there are a couple versions of how Wayne came to get the role. Both versions agree that the screenwriter had envisioned Marlon Brando in the role, but 20th Century Fox refused to loan him to the down-and-out RKO Radio Studios. According to director Dick Powell, he and Wayne were in a meeting to discuss a final picture for RKO Studios, and were going over other scripts in Powell’s office. Powell was called away, and when he returned, Wayne had found the script for The Conqueror, and wanted to do it. Powell tried to talk him out of it, as he was about to throw the script in the trash, but Wayne was adamant. Another version of the story states that Howard Hughes, who owned RKO Radio, wanted to make the picture, but needed a star. He and director Dick Powell discovered that Wayne had one movie left to do in a contract he signed with RKO early in his career back in 1939. Wayne was forced to do the film out of contractual obligation.
John Wayne appears to have deeply regretted the film, to the point that he visibly shuddered whenever it was mentioned. When asked about the moral of the film, he replied that it was “not to make an ass out of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”
Although panned by critics and audiences alike, the film is said to be one of Howard Hughes’ favorite films, and along with his other John Wayne film, Jet Pilot , was watched continuously by him later in his life. This film was the last in Howard Hughes’ career in the film industry.