Friday 22 February 2013

The Conqueror (1956)

Director: Howard Hughes
Stars: Jack Beutel, Thomas Mitchell, Jane Russell and Walter Huston

Howard Hughes had a knack for making money so strong that it could almost be called a Midas touch, but occasionally even he lost it. The Conqueror was a rare financial flop for him, though it did tie Rebel without a Cause for the 11th place in box office rentals in 1956, earning $4.5m. The catch is that it cost $6m to make and, apparently feeling guilty over some of the decisions made during production that may have cost the lives of many of his cast and crew, he shelled out $12m more to buy back every print of the film. After initial release, nobody saw The Conqueror except Howard Hughes himself until 1974, when he allowed it to be broadcast on television. Reportedly he watched it a lot, screening it and either Jet Pilot or Ice Station Zebra continuously during later reclusive years, in which he may well have suffered from allodynia, pain from being touched, so distracted himself by stripping naked and watching movies continually.

Virtually everything associated with The Conqueror was unmitigated disaster, but most disastrous was the choice to shoot on location in the Escalante Desert near St George, UT, downwind from the Nevada Test Site where the government had conducted Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953, only a year earlier. There were other problems too: Susan Hayward's black panther attacked her, Pedro Armendáriz's horse threw him, breaking his jaw, a flash flood nearly wiped out production and sweltering 120° heat made the fur costumes unbearable. Yet these fade into insignificance compared to the the acutely radioactive sand of Snow Canyon, into which clouds of fallout from eleven above ground nuclear tests in Nevada had funnelled, exposing the filmmakers for thirteen full weeks. You might think that this situation couldn't have been made any worse, but Hughes shipped sixty tons of this radioactive Utah dirt back to Hollywood to give retakes authenticity.

It's often been stated that Hughes simply accepted the government's assurances to the locals in St George that there was no danger to public health and that later on he felt 'guilty as Hell' that he had risked the lives of his cast and crew for a movie. However, Charles Higham's biography of Hughes highlights that this isn't fair. He was running RKO Pictures in 1953, as it produced Split Second that focused on the dangers of radiation in Nevada. It was actor Dick Powell's directorial debut, which he followed up with this. Hughes contracted to the government and the military, so uneasy with their ongoing testing that he delayed building any factories in Nevada. He was also notoriously germophobic, using tissues when picking up objects and requiring others to remove dust from their clothes. Tellingly, he never went to St George, which perhaps he only chose for being a Mormon town; he had long hired only Mormon aides to be sure they didn't drink.

The production numbered 220 cast and crew on location. By 1981, 91 of them had contracted a form of cancer and 46 were already dead of the disease, including many of the key players: John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead all died of cancer in the seventies, director Dick Powell in 1963 and Pedro Armendáriz the same year, by shooting himself in the heart to bypass suffering from terminal cancer. Half the residents of St George had contracted the disease by this time, and eventually, over half the cast and crew would too. While it has never conclusively been proved that the tests were a factor in these deaths and many victims smoked heavily, including the Duke, who survived lung cancer in 1964 before succumbing to stomach cancer in 1979, it's still likely, given a statistical anomaly of instances over three times higher than would usually be expected and wide variance in these instances, not restricted to lung cancer in the slightest.
Today, we don't look back at The Conqueror and see radioactive fallout, we look back at one of the most insane casting choices Hollywood ever made. There had been others, not least a trio of roles for Katharine Hepburn, whose impeccable Bryn Mawr accent inexplicably voiced backwoods girl Trigger Hicks in Spitfire, Mary, Queen of Scots in Mary of Scotland and, worst of all, Chinese peasant girl Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. Yet John Wayne is perhaps the most iconic American film star of all time, forever associated with rugged, hardworking, heroic types. Here he's tasked with playing Temujin, later known as Genghis Khan, which is as utterly ludicrous as it sounds. In later years he stated that the moral of the film was 'not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for.' It's the most ridiculous part he ever played, eclipsing his brief performance as Longinus in The Greatest Story Ever Told, speaking, 'Truly, this man was the son of God.'

The reason the Duke took the part to begin with is the stuff of legend. Studio releases suggest he demanded the part, having seen the script lying around somewhere. According to the Medveds' book, The Hollywood Hall of Shame, this took place in the office of Dick Powell, who had already been assigned to shoot Wayne's third and last RKO picture. They were discussing script choices, when Powell was called away for a few minutes. On his return, he found Wayne engrossed in the script for The Conqueror and insisting that the part be his. Powell attempted to dissuade him in vain, later explaining, 'Who am I to turn down John Wayne?' Some reports suggest that Powell intended to discard the script, others that he already had and the Duke had retrieved it from the bin. Perhaps he seriously felt it was a good choice for him to stretch his acting muscles, or maybe he just wanted to make a movie, perennial RKO delays affecting his work for other studios.

To me, it's an iconic story that explains well how such an awful script could make it to production. A leading man since 1930, Wayne was arguably at the peak of his powers in the 1950s. Recent successes like Fort Apache, Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon under his belt, he kicked off the decade with Rio Grande for his favourite director, John Ford. His best non-western, The Quiet Man, came in 1952, and one of his personal favourites, Hondo, in 1953. His most acclaimed film, The Searchers, was released in 1956, so that year saw both his best and worst movies. No wonder Wayne would become the industry's biggest star, topping Quigley's list of all time money makers. It's no stretch to see that a simple 'yes' from him might be enough to turn a discarded screenplay into a six million dollar picture and an emphatic one might guarantee it. Certainly, he was serious about the rôle once it was his, going on a crash diet that included Dexedrine four times a day.
While John Wayne's 'yes' to play Genghis Khan appears to have been a personal choice, the 'yes' from his leading lady took a lot more persuasion. Howard Hughes saw Susan Hayward as perfect for the part of Bortai, the fiery Tartar princess taken forcibly by Temujin but who gives herself to him willingly in the end. After all, she wasn't just a talented actress, Oscar nominated in 1947 for her role in Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman, she was also a fiery character in real life, something Hughes knew well as he was having an affair with her at the time. He constructed this film around her as much as around John Wayne, however much she hated it. He literally wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, even offering Darryl F Zanuck, who owned her contract, a million dollars under the table to release her for this film. Zanuck threatened to suspend her and her rising divorce costs forced her to accept. Still, she hated the script, the costumes, the heat, everything about the film.

It's easy to see why. It's unintentionally hilarious from moment one, looking utterly like a western in every way except for the props and costumes. It opens with Temujin, with slanted eyes, a hint at a moustache and a falcon on his arm, riding down with his men to discover why Chief Targutai is crossing his land and discovering Bortai, the chief's haughty third wife to be. 'I feel this Tartar woman is for me,' he tells his Mexican sidekick. 'My blood says take her!' Take her he does, in a raid that sparks war between Mongols, Tartars, Merkits, Karkaits and whatever other races show up in the form of local Navajo indians who didn't even wear make up to hide their ethnic origins. Bizarrely, much care was made to construct twelfth century villages from ancient drawings, but nothing else looks remotely authentic. Even the desert, described in the opening text as 'harsh and arid' is remarkably green, the Escalante a poor casting choice for the Gobi.

Admittedly, some actors fare better than others. The ever-reliable Agnes Moorehead is capable as Hunlun, Temujin's mother, her only failure the fact that she speaks in English like everyone else. Lee van Cleef is prominent in the background, always doing something without ever doing much. If anyone's needed to fetch a fur, deliver a present or just ride a horse out of frame, it's him, but he gets maybe one word in the entire film. Relying on his looks, which served him well for many ethnicities, works fine. The great Wang Khan's shaman is played by John Hoyt, a western staple, especially on television, but he goes all out, like Basil Rathbone playing Fu Manchu, and in doing so finds a slot in the long line of surprising white actors who aren't entirely terrible in yellowface make up, such as Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. These are rare exceptions, as most cast members fail to treat this as anything but just another western, which in most regards it is.
It's often said that Kurosawa's films, which he freely acknowledged had roots in John Ford's, were Japanese westerns or easterns, if you will. At least he adapted Ford's techniques to fit essentially Japanese settings, populating them with samurai and historical authenticity. The Conqueror ought to feel like such an eastern but it doesn't. It feels irrevocably like a western, somewhat like a play put on during a down moment on a cattle drive. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer can go musical, then the cast of Red River could stage a biopic of Genghis Khan just for fun, right? Hey, I could be the great conqueror, says the Duke. My frequent Mexican co-star could play my brother and the red haired Irish lass over there could be my bride. Maybe in an alternate universe where the Nazis won the war and occupied the US, the cast of a Paramount western are thrown into a POW camp and bide their time with frivolities like this. Think the play in Grand Illusion turned on its head.

It looks like a western in eastern clothes, guns swapped for swords, stetsons swapped for ornate eastern headgear, horses swapped for, well, horses. If props and costumes were swapped back, only the dancing girls in Wang Khan's palace would feel out of place in a western. The woman of Samarkand doesn't dance like a saloon girl in her outfit of Christmas tinsel, protected from the Breen Office by a flesh coloured bodysuit underneath. It sounds like a western too, Victor Young's score much better than what he gave Hughes for The Outlaw, but just as inappropriate, without even of a hint of eastern flavour. The language Oscar Millard puts into the characters' mouths is Elizabethan. Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare to the east; he adapted the east to Shakespeare. '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,' pronounces the Duke, 'for I am Temujin, the Conqueror.'

It's all about as authentic as Carry On... Up the Khyber, but without tapping into any underlying truth. Like The Outlaw, its only success lay in being sumptuous to the eyes, the cinematography from Joseph LaShelle, an Oscar winner for Laura, being accomplished. None of this mattered to Howard Hughes, of course, whose many action packed but nonsensical pictures suggest that he's the classic equivalent of Michael Bay. Maybe he didn't screen it over and over for decades out of guilt. Perhaps, as Higham suggests, he identified with the conqueror, having dated most of the leading ladies of the golden age, not least his own fiery princess, Susan Hayward, who he could forcibly take over and over again by simply rescreening the movie. In a way he already had, by forcing her to say 'yes' to the part. The Conqueror would have been horrible in any form, but its legendary badness is due to John Wayne. The 'yes' that he volunteered was its death blow.

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