December 16, 2014

The Conqueror

Genghis Khan. The man who forged a perpetually-warring people made up exclusively of battle-tested warriors into an unstoppable juggernaut of pain that created the world's largest land-based empire, with nothing more than his unmatched charisma and elevation of loyalty and skill above family relations.

It's 1956, and you're making a movie about the most feared man in world history. Who would you cast as this world-spanning conqueror, this man who destroyed cities, massacred their inhabitants, and fathered more illegitimate children than an entire session of the US Congress? Yul Brynner, that's who, because Yul Brynner is fucking rad. He's a charismatic, imposing, powerful presence onscreen, and he's at least part Mongolian. Not to mention that in that very same year of 1956, his magnificently sculpted torso blew Charles "From my cold dead hands" Heston off the screen in The Ten Commandments. Give the man a sword and a horse and unleash him on an unsuspecting steppe.

What you don't do is put John fucking Wayne in bad yellowface and have him romance a Central Asian "Tartar" woman so Aryan Dr. Strangelove's hand would be compelled to salute her.

The Conqueror is the story of the worst casting choice since some jackass decided to put Clooney in the Batsuit. I know you think Kevin Costner's complete lack of even an attempt to drop his completely inappropriate accent for playing Robin Hood was atrocious and unforgiveable, and you're right of course, because Kevin Costner sucks harder than a Republican Congressman in a skeezy truckstop men's room. But just wait until you hear Genghis fucking Khan talk about his blood boiling in lust for a woman he's about to kidnap and force into his bed in John Wayne's all-American cowboy drawl. Be sure to read the following sentences aloud in your best Wayne impression:

"While I have fingers to grasp a sword, and eyes to see yer cowardly faces, yer treacherous heads will nawt be safe on yer shoulders. For I am Temoojin, the conqueror. No prison can hold me, no army can defeat me, pilgrim."

The film details a mere few days it seems in the life of Khal Drogo Genghis Khan as he was just beginning his rise to dominance of all Mongolia. But really it's a shitty remake of Romeo and Juliet, only here Romeo kidnaps Juliet and holds her prisoner until she grows to love him while., avoiding her attempts to murder him with a sword. Because whitebread monogamous marital love is what the Mongols were all about.

Genghis Khan (John Wayne!), known in the film by his birth name Temujin, espies his rival Targutai, chief of the Merkit tribe, and rides forth to challenge him in that "by whose leave do you cross my lands?" ye olde bullshit language that reflects how precisely no one has spoken ever. He immediately becomes enchanted with Targutai's soon-to-be-third-wife Bortai (Susan Hayward). Bortai, for her part, is having none of Temujin, since she's a Capulet Tartar and he's a Montague Mongol, and her father killed his father and yadda yadda. Temujin contemplates attacking Targutai's caravan and seizing Bortai for himself, but his right-hand man Jamuga (Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, the only actor in the entire cast who isn't of the Master Race) persuades him to return to their village to gather moar men. They head back and recruit a raiding party. I guess Temujin doesn't bother to tell them who or what they're raiding until they're just about to ambush the caravan, since upon finding out the target is the Merkit chief, the fearsome Mongol warriors are suddenly afraid to attack, lest the larger and more powerful Merkit tribe retaliate later. But Temujin gives a speech that won't have Henry V looking over his shoulder (including calling the warriors "women" for their cowardice, as if the Mongols considered their women weak) and the raid is on.

The Mongols win, but not before Targutai decides that discretion is the better part of valor and makes to beat feet. He tells Bortai to come with, but she's all "Runnin' is fer punks" and he's all "Then I'ma leave yo' ass" and she's all "Well do it, tough guy!" and he's all "Smell ya later!" He bravely runs away, away, and Temujin gets him dead to rights but doesn't kill him from behind, because that's how Genghis Khan rolled. He just taunts him for his failure and then lets him escape. Now, I could see Genghis Khan making fun of his cowardly defeated enemy in front of his victorious raiding party...and then brutally slaughtering him. I mean, this is a man who burned entire cities to the ground to prove a point. No way he's letting his enemy come back to fight another day.

Bortai remains defiant, even threatening Temujin with death at her father's hands, and Temujin somewhat unrealistically responds by not raping her right then and there, since he's fucking Genghis Khan. I know it's 1956, but if you aren't even going to fade to black at this point, why even make a movie with the Mongols as protagonists? Didn't the filmmakers give a toss about even a semblance of historical accuracy?

Oh right, the John-Wayne-as-Genghis-Khan-thing. Nevermind.

He does rip her shirt off, though, as the movie's romantic music plays(!). He takes her back to the village, and stuff happens, and then he takes her into his yurt to put the make on her, and she says she'll just lie there and do nothing. Temujin becomes frustrated and leaves, because Genghis Khan would never force himself on an unwilling partner. But wait, this movie is clearly '50s in its heart. Isn't his wife lying there and doing nothing just what he'd want? *rimshot*

Bortai then gets Jamuga to come into her yurt, which is frankly the worst possible idea for both of them no matter how you look at it. Jamuga declares his loyalty to Temujin, Bortai threatens to give away the compromising position he's currently in (somehow forgetting that the situation looks no better for her), Jamuga starts to choke a bitch, and then Targutai rescues us from this godawful scene by raiding the village. More stilted action scenes follow. Targutai stabs his spear through the front door of Temujin's yurt, which would have done the Mongol leader in but for the fact that he isn't standing directly on the other side of it at the time. Temujin then exits through another part of the yurt and easily kacks Targutai with a spear (causing Targutai's horse to fall over?) and even more easily captures the fleeing Bortai. Some random Merkits pursue (apparently seeing their leader cut down didn't affect their morale at all), and Temujin cunningly evades them by hiding himself and Bortai in a cleft in the rock in full view of the Merkits. But the script says the Merkits don't see them, so they ride by, leaving Bortai to accept Temujin's advances, because the script says she loves him now(?), at least if the movie's romantic music is to be believed. I mean, nothing says sexy-time like lying on a bare rock face, amirite, ladies? Fade to black.

Next day, Temujin and his new wife return to the village. A guy challenges Temujin's leadership, so Temujin lays him out with a patented John Wayne haymaker. Which is exactly how Genghis Khan would respond to a challenge to his leadership.

He then decides to destroy the Tartars by enlisting the aid of one Wang Khan. Bortai reveals she still hates Temujin and clumsily tries to sword-murder him, an attack he easily avoids. This only further inflames his desire for her, but once again he won't force himself on her. He does slap her for being uppity when he claims she'll eventually hate him so much that she'll love him (lolwut), but then he looks regretful about it, and I secretly hoped the real Genghis Khan would rise from the grave as a kickass zombie Mongol and strangle Wayne to death on screen.

The Mongols go to Wang Khan's city, Urga, and man, the parade of white people in shitty brown face paint and terrible Fu Manchus just keeps getting longer. It turns out Wang Khan isn't the real power in the city of Urga anymore; instead it's his advisor Shaman. Temujin quickly groks to this, and then it's time for a few very long and very boring "exotic" dance sequences. After Temujin smirks approvingly at the slinky, scantily-clad dancing women, Bortai's jealousy makes her doff her coat to reveal a silver-sequined bra (how long has she been wearing that?) and do her own sword dance. Suddenly, just when we most expect it, she hurls one of the swords at Temujin. Look, if you aren't the Governator, you can't throw a fucking sword. Not to mention that I doubt the mousy Hayward could even lift a real sword, much lest hurl it 20 feet through the air.

Shaman agrees to support Temujin against the Tartars, but the latter strike first when Bortai's father Kumlek seizes the Mongols' village just before Temujin and his party arrive. Temujin gets shot with an arrow and Bortai escapes to rejoin her father. She helps Jamuga escape from her father's captivity, but as Jamuga should've known, the only reason for the ease of his escape was that Bortai and a party of men are tracking him to the rebel base Temujin. The future Genghis Khan is captured and hauled in front of Kumlek with his arms tied to a piece of wood across his back in perhaps the most jaw-dropping Christ imagery in film history. Later, Bortai, apparently now back in love with him (wha....?), helps Temujin escape. People do a lot of escaping in this movie. Temujin decides his earlier wound doesn't bother him anymore and kills few guys for good measure before taking his leave.

Temujin returns to camp and prepares for the big fight with the Tartars, but Shaman appears and tells him of Wang Khan's treachery: He's not sending the promised army, leaving the Mongols to fight alone. Shaman, who is disgusted, simply disgusted by this brazen act of treachery, promises to open the gates of Urga to Temujin, who can murderize Wang and seize the army for himself. Shaman also says that this is an obvious double-cross and that he himself is actually behind the plot. Okay, I may have added that last part.

Shaman does open the gates, and Temujin does seize the city. Shaman finds Wang in bed and stabs him just as Temujin enters, but since he stabs him in the stomach rather than, say, the throat or head or chest or anywhere instantly fatal, Wang is able to reveal that Shaman told him to betray Temujin in the first place. So Temujin cuts down Shaman (tastefully off-screen, of course). Um...but didn't Temujin earlier believe Wang betrayed him? Why does he suddenly trust Wang's word now? Shaman opened the gates to city as promised, and earlier Temujin seemed fine with Shaman's plot to murder Wang and throw his support behind Temujin. Fuck it, I don't care, let's just get to the end.

Temujin takes over Wang's army and marches against the Tartars. Bortai saves Jamuga from her father's torture and confesses her willingness to betray her father and her people for Temujin's. People do a lot of betraying in this movie. For his part, Temujin infiltrates the Tartar camp at night and then immediately gives away the game by calling out for Bortai. She runs to him, because love, and Temujin suspects Jamuga of shenanigans with her and tries to kill him for it. (He doesn't seem angry with her, though.) Before he can succeed, he has to let Jamuga alone because the climax of the film is about to start. Temujin pulls Bortai close before he marches forth to take revenge for his father's murder by murdering her father, and she seems pretty okay with it. Blah blah big battle, with Temujin in the thick of things while Kumlek sits on a hill and watches. Because warrior chiefs don't actually fight in battles. Temujin eventually sights his foe and charges after him, who bravely runs away, away. Temujin quickly unhorses and murders his unresisting enemy, the only time he does anything remotely like Genghis Khan. Still, not exactly pouring molten gold onto the bastard's head, is it? The film ends with Jamuga, afraid Temujin will always suspect him of treachery even though he has at no point done anything treacherous, requesting to be executed(?) and Temujin granting the request(!), with Jamuga's voiceover(!!) telling us that Genghis Khan's descendents would "rule half the world". Thankfully, mercifully, the credits roll.

The Conqueror is long, boring, and shitty. I guess you could say that, in the end, The Conqueror...


...was the one who got conquered.


The time is ripe for a Hollywood action movie about Genghis Khan. I mean, we've already had Alexander the Great, Action! Robin Hood, Hercules, Richard I, Action! Dracula, Hercules again...why not the greatest conqueror of them all?

But who, you ask, would play The Conqueror, now that Yul Brynner has ascended to Mount Olympus to take his place among the other gods? Oh, I think we all know who.....