Okay, we get it, Imagination Connoisseur, Willow Yang, writes amazing letters and even better reviews – not just of STAR TREK. Her point-of-view is not only insightful, it’s humorous and often thought-provoking.

And this review of John Wayne’s epic fail of a historical epic, THE CONQUERER, is no exception.

Check it out.

Greetings Rob,

I cannot believe that I’m writing this, but you’ve asked for it, so here it is: my thoughts on John Wayne’s The Conqueror. I’ve never even heard of the film until I took a biological statistics course with Dr. Michael Whitlock (who is a great professor and also one my colleague’s committee members).

Here’s how he described the movie in his book, The Analysis of Biological Data: “In 1955, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in a movie called The Conqueror. It was not an artistic success. More unfortunately, the movie was filmed downwind of the site of 11 previous aboveground nuclear bomb tests. Of the 220 people who worked on the movie, 91 had been diagnosed with cancer by the early 1980s, including Wayne, his costars, and the director.

According to the large-scale epidemiological data, only about 14% of people of this age group, on average, should have been stricken with cancer within this time frame. We want to know whether there is evidence for an increased cancer risk of people associated with this film.”

I’m, admittedly, not big on Westerns; the genre is a very American creation that I just never really got into. The first John Wayne movie that I saw was The Searchers, which I actually watched for a first-year English course in college. To be honest, I don’t really have much of an impression of the movie itself (I know it’s sacrilegious to say, seeing that The Searchers is often regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, but I was going through a bout of depression at the time, so that might have hindered my enjoyment of it).

What I do remember however, is my teaching assistant hating the movie for having a former Confederate soldier, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, as its protagonist. Her synopsis of the story was something along the lines of: “It’s about a racist who goes out searching for his niece who was kidnapped by Native Americans with the intention of killing her because he thinks that she’s become a savage, but then in the end realises that she’s still white and brings her back home.”. Unfortunately, I think that her perspective is probably shared by many modern viewers, who may find it difficult to enjoy older films that depict sensitive and problematic subject matter.

Of course, many modern viewers will also be outraged with the casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, a decision that’s often regarded as one of the most egregious miscastings in Hollywood history. Personally however, I wasn’t offended by the movie’s racial insensitivity; I actually found it hilarious watching a bunch of white actors pretending to be Mongolians and other Asiatic groups of people. I have to take something seriously in order to be offended by it, and the laughable dialogue and nonsensical story of the film just made it too ludicrous for me to take it seriously. I’m almost glad that I didn’t have to see a cast of Asian actors debasing themselves in this monstrosity of a movie (and also getting exposed to ionizing radiation during the filming, but I’ll get to that later).

For a movie called “The Conqueror”, there wasn’t much actual conquering taking place. Instead, the majority of the screen time was devoted to scenes of exotic women dancing, people carousing inside tents, and an eye-rolling romance between John Wayne and an equally miscast Susan Hayward as Bortai. The dialogue was stilted and cheesy; the acting wooden. I haven’t watched enough John Wayne films to gage his prowess as an actor, but his abominable portrayal of one of the most infamous and iconic rulers in recorded history certainly did not leave a good impression on me.

His Genghis Khan was a buffoon, a brash and lecherous bandit who repeatedly makes mistakes, who gets himself ambushed and captured due to his own carelessness, and who utters atrocious lines like: “I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says take her!”. His character failed to invoke any fear or reverence; I could not buy into him being the ruthless but tactical warlord who would go on to conquer half of Asia. The romance between him and Bortai alternated from being cringeworthy to laughably ludicrous, as exemplified by classic quotes like: “You’re beautiful in your wrath”.

If I wanted to see a woman being seduced by a macho warlord named “Khan”, I’d watch Space Seed again. Ricardo Montalbán, a Hispanic actor, might have not been the best choice to portray an Indian man, but at least he brought a power and gravitas to his character that was sorely lacking in John Wayne’s performance.

Even ignoring the flagrant white-washing, which would not hold up well to modern viewings, the Conqueror was just an abysmal movie. Surprisingly however, in spite of its countless flaws, I didn’t actually hate it. It’s not quite so bad that it’s good like The Room, but it did have more than a few unintentionally comedic moments. My favourite scene happened near the end when Genghis Khan spots his treacherous sworn-brother at a Tartar camp. “My brother,” he says, charging towards him on his horse. “Die traitor, die!”.

He takes a half-assed swing at him with his sword, misses, turns and gallops away. I don’t know what the intent of the filmmakers were when they shot that scene, but it definitely garnered a few chuckles from me with its sheer stupidity. Thus, even though I don’t consider The Conqueror to be “an artistic success” by any stretch of the imagination, I do think it has some entertainment value.

But of course, there lingers the question: Is there evidence for an increased cancer risk of people associated with the film? The proportion of people who got cancer amongst the film crew was 91/220 = 0.41, or 41%. Is 41% statistically significantly higher than the 14% in the general population that it’s unlikely to have occurred just by chance? There are several methods of determining this; the one we used was to calculate the 95% confidence interval, which is the range where the “true” average cancer rate for the crew likely lies.

I guess the best way to explain this is: if we repeated this experiment 100 times by having the crew film at the same location, on 95 occasions the cancer rates will fall within this interval. Without going into details on the mathematical equations, the 95% confidence interval was between 35% and 48%, which is much higher than the 14% of the general population. Thus, while I personally don’t think The Conqueror is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it is a movie that has literally given people cancer.

Yours sincerely,
Willow