Reviewed by Arno Mikli
Rating: 9 Beans
his movie dealt with Genghis Khan, a 13th century tyrant, mass murderer and all-around Mr Bad Guy. Whilst pursuing his empire-building ambitions, he destroyed or overrun several civilisations (including the Kiev empire in Russia and the Persian empire of Shah Mohammed), implemented massacres on a horrific scale in numerous areas such as Afghanistan and northern India, and generally plunged most of Eastern Europe into a state where, in the long term, Eastern Europe and Russia remained far more backward in areas such as the arts and education than their Western counterparts. His descendants continued to rule and expand his empire for several generations.
Genghis Khan is therefore hardly the ideal candidate for a light romance/action film, but millionaire and novice filmmaker Howard Hughes, who had recently acquired RKO Radio Pictures, apparently thought otherwise. The film deals mainly with his seeing and ,well, taking Princess Bortai as his bride.The marriage bit was made necessary after a "moral watchdog" association complained about the idea of Genghis Khan not doing this. In addition to this, he takes on Tartar warriors as part of his campaign to conquer the aforementioned Kiev empire.
Hughes succeeded in casting John Wayne in the title role. This resulted in John Wayne in heavy makeup strutting about and uttering lines such as " She is a woman - much woman" in a fashion that had critics reacting very scornfully indeed. Other "big names" bought into this production included Susan Hayward as the Tartar princess called Bortai and Agnes Moorehead in a supporting role as Bortai's nurse Hunlun.
This reviewer remembers the finished product as being ignorant and silly. He did not find the curtain line about "from forth their loins sprang a race of conquerors " as silly as others had. But the role was definitely not John Wayne's finest and the overall nature of the film was unsatisfactory. Perhaps the main basis for concern is how Genghis Khan is almost portrayed as being a wild west cowboy with the Tartars being his Indian foes. The casting of native Shivwit Indians as Tartar warriors further enforced this impression. There were also numerous lines that this reviewer did not care for, such as where Genghis Khan's buddy Jamuga (Pedro Armendariz) tells Bortai how Genghis Khan has a " quality of spirit that demands love". (Incidentally, did these two even exist? This reviewer doubts it.)
But this by itself would not have earned this film the high number of beans that it has gotten. There was also the choice of locale for the filming. It further emphasised the "Cowboys-and-Indians" flavour of this film. But there was also a more serious problem with it.
It based at the town of St George, Nevada. Though over 100 miles away, it was still too close, as it turned out, to the site where the US government had been doing nuclear tests in 1953. In the years that followed, an outbreak of cancer occurred amongst cast and crew members, apparently as a result of contaminated dirt from those test having been blown onto the film location. According to the Medveds in their book, "The Hollywood Hall of Shame" , 91 out of the 220 cast and crew members went down with cancer. Victims included Wayne, Hayward, Armendariz and Moorehead. The expected number of cancer cases in a sample of 220 persons is said to be 30.
Knowing all this gives the film an ugly "snuff movie" flavour. This reviewer had some trouble watching this film , and in particular ones where the Shivwit Indians are filmed rolling about in dirt whilst engaging in their battle scenes, without wondering in which scene or scenes did a cast member get his or her fatal dose of radiation. In a display of grim humour, the Medveds called this film the "an RKO Radio(active) picture".
Hughes was reported as being horrified when the film's staff began to develop cancer, and recalled all copies of the film. It was not re-released for small-screen viewing until the early 1980s, after Hughes's death. This is how this reviewer got to see it on TV one night at 2 am.
Genghis Khan's name was synonymous with death, tyranny and destruction. Even after he died, anyone who saw his funeral procession was promptly put to death. He would therefore, this reviewer thinks, take great satisfaction indeed in knowing that 700 years after his demise, his name had once again bought about death and suffering.
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