John Wayne: Worst Movie–The Conqueror?

Quick: John Wayne made over 100 feature films. Which would you say is his worst picture?

I vote for The Conqueror.

In Howard Hughes’ lush production, The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell, John Wayne was miscast as Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century Mongol Emperor.

The plot, such as it is, is rather simple: Mongol chief Temujin (later known as Genghis Khan) falls for Bortai, the daughter of the Tartar leader, and steals her away, precipitating a major war. Bortai spurns Temujin and is taken back in a raid, while Temujin is captured. Having fallen in love with him, Bortai helps him escape. Temujin suspects that he was betrayed by a fellow Mongol and sets out to find the traitor and to overcome the Tartars.

The Duke later said that he had accepted the role without much excitement and out of obligation to his friend Hughes, head of RKO, who had great hopes for this movie.

This time, however, both reviewers and audiences had difficulties disassociating John Wayne from his all-American image, and the picture was both an artistic and commercial flop.

The Conqueror was described by A. H. Weiler in the New York Times (March 31, 1956) as an “Oriental Western,” and John Wayne's appearance as “a mite startling at first, but soon recognizable.” “Once in the saddle,” he wrote, “He is the rough riding John Wayne of yore.”

Similarly, the Time magazine critic (August 9, 1956) noted, that the film suggested that “Mongolia is in the Western U.S.,” and that the part of “the Perfect Warrior,” was played by “Hollywood's best-known cowboy, John Wayne.”

Wayne’s worst dialogue with a woman is in this picture with his co-star Susan Hayward, as a Tartar princess, who's acquired by Wayne after slaying her husband. Throughout the film he is tough on her, which she resents. Then in a supposedly lusty scene, he tells her father, the ruler Kumlek: “While I live, while my blood runs hot, your daughter is not safe in her tent!” And warned, “there is no limit to her perfidy,” he responds, “She is a woman. Much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women.”

Later on, Hayward tries to decapitate him with a sword while his back is turned, but he looks into her defiant face and delivers his favorite line, “You're beautiful in your wrath.” He then carries her into the tent and tells her, “I shall keep you, Bortai, in response to my passion. Your hatred will kindle into love.” But she is still defiant, “Before that day dawns, Mongol, the vultures will have feasted on your heart.”

To think that Susan Hayward agreed to appear in this film and recite these lines, when she was at the peak of her popularity, is still hard to believe. More than embarrassing, the love scenes are risible.

Wayne himself attributed the film’s failure to the fact that “people would simply not accept me as Genghis Khan. I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won't take anything else.” He also revealed that he interpreted the role of Genghis Khan as a Westerner, and that's the way he played him.

The Conqueror has been chosen as one of “The 50 Worst Films of All Time,” in a book edited by Medved and Dreyfuss. They wrote: Made as a Western, The Conqueror” looks as if the wrong costumes were delivered and they decided to shoot it anyway.”

Jack Smith wrote in the L.A. Times (September 15, 1980) after watching the movie, that it would definitely be on his list of the ten, not fifty, worst movies. “I can't think of a more improbable piece of casting,” he continued, “unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.”

Wayne became embarrassed at the slight mentioning of The Conqueror, wishing to forget all about it. Fortunately for Wayne, Hughes was sentimental toward the movie–it was his last at RKO–and when the studio was sold, Hughes bought back The Conquerors for a phenomenal amount of money and locked it in a vault until his death; the movie was first shown on television in 1980.


John Wayne as Temujin, later Genghis Khan
Susan Hayward as Bortai
Pedro Armendáriz 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
Leo Gordon as Tartar Captain