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In the twelfth century, feared but respected Mongol leader Temujin intercepts a Merkit caravan crossing the Gobi Desert and questions Targutai, the Merkit's chief, about his business. When Targutai, who has long been the Mongol's enemy, smugly introduces Temujin to Bortai, his beautiful bride-to-be and the daughter of the Tartar chief, Temujin responds with insolence. After riding off, however, Temujin confides in Jamuga, his "blood brother," that he desires Bortai and will take her by any means necessary. Fearing an all-out war, Jamuga advises Temujin against pursuing Bortai, but Temujin orders a raid on the Merkits. During the raid, the cowardly Targutai tries to flee, but is caught by Temujin and brought before the captured Bortai. To humiliate Targutai, Temujin rips off Bortai's dress and gives it to him as a "souvenir," then releases him. Later at the Mongol encampment, Temujin's mother Hunlun becomes enraged when she learns that Bortai is the daughter of Kumlek, her husband's murderer, but Temujin is unmoved. That night, after Bortai ignores Temujin's order to dance for the men, Temujin drags her to his tent and repeats his demand. When Bortai again refuses and insults him, Temujin angrily sends her to her own tent. In the middle of the night, Bortai meets secretly with Jamuga and offers herself to him in exchange for help in escaping. Still loyal to Temujin, Jamuga refuses, but moments later, the camp is stampeded by Targutai and his men. After Temujin kills Targutai, he grabs Bortai and hides with her in a ravine. While waiting for the Merkits to retreat, Temujin forcefully kisses Bortai, and she gives in to his passion. Sure that Bortai's father will seek revenge, Temujin tells Jamuga his scheme to trick Wang Khan, his Karkait ally, into joining forces with the Mongols by claiming that the Tartars are planning to attack Urga, Wang Khan's walled city. Temujin leaves for Urga with Bortai in tow, and while camped, informs her that she is sleeping in his tent and giving her dowry furs to Wang Khan. Furious, Bortai tries to stab Temujin and insults him until, fed up, he slaps her. Later, at Wang Khan's palace, Temujin makes Bortai jealous by loudly praising Wang Khan's seductive dancers. After performing her own dance, Bortai grabs a sword and hurls it at Temujin, narrowly missing him. Temujin again sends Bortai away, then confers with Wang Khan about Kumlek. In turn, Wang Khan seeks advice from his trusted shaman, who consults with the "spirits" and endorses Temujin's plan. The next day, however, the shaman informs Temujin that Wang Khan has grown weak and that Urga needs a new, strong leader like Temujin. On his way to the Tartars' encampment with Wang Khan's warriors, Temujin is ambushed and wounded by Kumlek, but flees into a cave. After the Tartars retreat with Bortai, Jamuga rescues Temujin, and later, enters the Tartar encampment, claiming to be a deserter. Although Kumlek believes Jamuga, Bortai is not fooled and, that night, has him followed back to Temujin's cave. There Temujin is captured by the Tartars and, tied to a heavy yoke, forced to pull an ox cart to their encampment. Temujin is jeered at and taunted by the Tartars, and Kumlek orders his slow, torturous death. During the night, the bound Temujin knocks his sleeping guard out, then is freed by Bortai, who embraces him and admits she loves him. When Temujin finally returns to the Mongol camp, he learns that Jamuga has taken over as chief and accuses his friend of betraying him to Kumlek. Jamuga convinces Temujin of his loyalty and agrees to go with strong man Kasar to Urga. There, Jamuga and Kasar inform Wang Khan that Temujin and his warriors are expecting to meet Wang Khan's troops during the next full moon. The shaman, however, tells Wang Khan that Jamuga is plotting against him and suspects Temujin is dead. Jamuga and Kasar are imprisoned in their room, but that night, Kasar bends the iron bars of the room's window, allowing Jamuga to escape. Although Kasar is discovered and killed, Jamuga flees the encampment on his horse, but is captured by Kumlek. Later, at the Mongols' rendezvous point, Temujin is visited by the shaman, who advises him to take over Wang Khan's troops and assures him that the gates to Urga will be opened so that the Mongols can easily storm the city. As the siege begins, the shaman sneaks into Wang Khan's bedroom and stabs him, unaware that Temujin is nearby, spying on him. Before dying, Wang Khan denounces the shaman, who then is killed by Temujin. With their leader's death, Wang Khan's forces join Temujin's, and together they head for the Tartars' encampment. Kumlek, meanwhile, tries to torture Jamuga into revealing whether Temujin is alive, but Jamuga bravely resists. Jamuga is rescued by Bortai just as Temujin and his troops rush into the Tartar camp, and Temujin sees Jamuga in Bortai's tent. After a bloody battle, Temujin defeats the Tartars and kills Kumlek, but again believes that Jamuga has betrayed him. Later, at Bortai's urging, Temujin puts his suspicions aside and embraces his blood brother. Jamuga, however, knows that Temujin, whom he dubs "Genghis Khan," or "perfect warrior," will never again trust him and asks to be executed. With a breaking heart, Temujin agrees to honor Jamuga's request.
Ted De Corsia
Lee Van Cleef
George E. Stone
Albert S. D'agostino
William Hole Jr.
Commander K. D. Iain Murray
Harry J. Wild
For me, there is no peace while you live, Mongol.- Bortai
You're beautiful in your wrath.- Temujin
I stole you. I will keep you. Before the sun sets you will come willingly to my arms.- Temujin
She is a woman - much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?- Temujin
While I live, while my blood burns hot, your daughter is not safe in her tent.- Temujin
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.- Temujin
Filmed near the site of contemporaneous nuclear testing grounds, the set was contaminated by nuclear fallout. After location shooting, much dirt from the location was transported back to Hollywood in order to match interior shooting done there. Scores of cast and crew members developed forms of cancer over the next two decades, many more than the normal percentage of a random group of this size. Quite a few died from cancer or cancer-related problems, including 'Wayne, John' , 'Hayward, Susan' , Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, and director 'Powell, Dick' .
Wayne took his role very seriously, went on a crash diet, and took Dexedrine tablets 4 times a day.
The eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes, provided the financial backing of this film and paid approximately $12 million for every existing print of the film from a sense of guilt. It was Hughes that paid for the shipping of 60 tons of radioactive dirt to Hollywood for retakes (see above). He kept a jealous hold on it, not even allowing it to be seen on television, for 17 years, until 1974, when Paramount managed to secure the rights to reissue it.
Sometimes referred to as "An RKO Radioactive Picture".
The screenplay was written before John Wayne became involved in the project. The writer had Marlon Brando in mind for the role.
Onscreen credits conclude with the following written foreword: "This story, though fiction, is based on fact. In the twelfth century the Gobi Desert seethed with unrest. Mongols, Merkits, Tartars and Karkaits struggled for survival in a harsh and arid land. 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 cunning changed the face of the world." Voice-over narration, spoken by Pedro Armendariz as his character "Jamuga," is heard briefly at the end of the picture. Although Title Guide to the Talkies lists the source of the film as John Clou's 1954 book A Caravan to Camul, Clou is not credited in any other source, or in the onscreen credits.
As depicted in the film, Temüjin (1162-1227) first led a small group of Mongols, then defeated rival clan leaders until he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, or Universal Ruler, in 1206. In 1211, he invaded northern China, capturing Peking in 1215. Temüjin declared war on Khwarezm, in the Middle East, after the governor of the city of Otrar ordered the massacre of a band of Muslim merchants under Temüjin's protection. The war lasted for many years and earned Temüjin the reputation as a brutal and vengeful conqueror. Temüjin did marry a woman named Börte ("Bortai" in the film), but unlike in the film, he had been betrothed to her since childhood. Temüjin's "blood brother" was a Karkait chief named Toghril ("Wang Khan" in the film), who persuaded Temüjin's childhood friend Jamuka ("Jamuga" in the film) to help Temüjin defeat the Merkits after they stole and ravished Börte. As depicted in the film, Temüjin presented Toghril with a sable skin, which he had, in turn, received as a bridal gift. Unlike in the film, Jamuka, who had his own army, was not particularly loyal to Temüjin, and at Börte's urging, Temüjin broke with him and fought with him for control of the Mongol tribes.
Production on the picture was delayed for several months, due in part to indecision regarding which screen process to use. The Conqueror was the first RKO picture to be released in CinemaScope and, as noted in studio publicity materials, was the studio's most expensive production, costing six million dollars. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were scouted as locations, but filming took place in the Escalante Desert near St. George, UT, and Warner Canyon in Southern California. Three hundred Indians from the Shivwit Reservation were used as extras for the battle sequence, according to studio publicity material.
RKO borrowed Susan Hayward from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production. As noted in studio publicity, Armendariz was seriously injured when his horse threw him during the filming of one sequence and was hospitalized for eight days. Publicity also indicates that John Wayne's son Michael and director Dick Powell's son Norman appear in the picture as inept Mongol guards. Hollywood Reporter news items add Marie Ardell, Dian Myles, Salli Sorvo and Anna Cheselka to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter also announced that Barrie Chase was to perform a dance in the picture, but Sylvia Lewis is listed as the "solo dancer" in the CBCS and Variety review. Chase's appearance has not been confirmed. Modern sources note that Fred Cavens gave John Wayne fencing lessons in preparation for his part.
The Conqueror was the last film that Howard Hughes personally produced. Before the picture's release, Hughes sold RKO and its properties to General Teleradio for twenty five million dollars. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, at the time of General Teleradio's purchase, Hughes gave General Tire & Rubber Co., General Teleradio's parent company, an eight million dollar, three-year loan, payable in installments after the release of The Conqueror and Jet Pilot . News items indicate that the two films were used as loan collateral. Modern sources note that several years later, Hughes purchased the pictures from Teleradio for twelve million dollars. Although The Conqueror was a commercial and critical flop, Hughes reportedly loved the picture and watched it obsessively for years.
In January and February 1956, The Conqueror was given a series of highly publicized benefit premieres in Washington, D.C., Manila and European cities, including Paris, London and Berlin. Wayne's appearance at the Berlin premiere caused a near-riot, according to a January 31, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, as fans from both East and West Berlin stormed past border police to reach the theater. In 1974, Daily Variety announced that Paramount Pictures was re-releasing the film, but in April 1979, Hollywood Reporter stated that Universal had acquired the rights and that at the time of the purchase, the picture had not been screened publicly for twenty-one years.
In 1979, The Conqueror became embroiled in a controversy after residents of St. George alleged that radioactive fallout from a May 19, 1953 atomic bomb blast, which occurred at a test site in Yucca Flat, NV, 145 miles away, had caused an "epidemic" of cancer cases in the town. Ninety of the 220 crew and cast members who worked on The Conqueror, including Powell, Wayne, Armendariz and Hayward, also developed some form of cancer. According to a 1980 LAHEx article, Jeanne Gerson, who played Bortai's nurse in the picture, filed a class action suit against the U.S. government, alleging that she had contracted skin and breast cancer as the result of radioactive exposure during filming. The disposition of the suit is not known.
Other films about Genghis Khan include King of the Mongols, a 1964 Japanese picture, and Columbia's 1965 release Genghis Khan, directed by Henry Levin and starring Stephen Boyd and Omar Sharif (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).
Released in United States Winter February 1956
Shooting took place 136 miles from a huge atomic test site in Utah. 220 people worked on the film and over 90 contracted cancer including Dick Powell, Wayne, Hayward, Armendariz and Moorhead.
Released in United States Winter February 1956