Sunday, January 27, 2013

An Old Gem - The Conqueror

They have been making movies for a long time. Not all of them have been received well, regardless of the quality of the film. The Conqueror is one such film.

It was produced by Howard Hughes and released in 1956. Probably the two most notable things about it are that it starred John Wayne and that an unusually high percentage of the cast later developed cancerous due to the filming location. One thing the movie does not pretend to be is historical. Great effort was made to make it look right, which probably led to the unusual filming location for the exterior shots, but this is a drama inspired by history and it says so early in the opening credits.

I've read many comments on casting John Wayne to play the medieval Mongol leader and to me, it is a brilliant piece of casting, right in line with so many of Wayne's best roles. This is a grand 1950's historical epic, though it isn't very long as it only covers the opening years of Gengis Khan's career. Gengis Khan, or Temujin, his proper name and what he is called through the film, is a rough Mongol warrior who is so similar to the rough cowboys that Wayne usually plays that it is frightening. Few actors have that rough but lovable quality that Wayne did so well. Some complain about casting someone of European ancestry to play an Asian, but according to our best description and Mongolian genetic analysis, Temujin had red hair and green eyes and carried a patrilineal Y chromosome inherited from  distant European ancestory, as many Mongols matching that description.

So from the start it wars that this is a drama inspired by historical events, and it delivers. I could go into the differences between history and the film, but there is little point. It is an engaging story that gives us the spirit of these people while very inaccurately telling their story. I think the research in set design and costumes was far more accurate. Oh, and a word of note, having watch this right after watching a more historical dramitization of some of the events, it was very obvious that the horses used in this movie were totally wrong. They were probably the stock horses used in the westerns of the day and were way too big to be a proper Mongolian pony.

The one flaw was the attempt on the part of the screenwriter and the director (or maybe Hughes himself) to use stilted dialog. It lent a periodish feel, but felt forced and fake. Fortunately the story was compelling enough that I got used to it except when it was particularly bad.

Due to its age, this film could use a restoration. The transfer I watched (the only one I know of that is available on DVD) was either a technicolor print or a first generation color film copy. It suffers from some color misalignment and has the cigarette burns (the old end of real marks).

If you are a stickler for history and offended at the casting choices, this movie isn't for you. If you enjoy a good historical adventure epic, this is just your thing. The political backstabbing adds a wonderful depth and is something they did get right (in spirit though not for this period in his life)

I'd give it 4 stars out of 5 simply because of the scripted dialog and some technical issues. Otherwise it is a wonderful adventure that I enjoy watching over and over.

1 comment:

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