Tag Archives: Epic

CINEMATIC CONTROVERSIES: THE CONQUEROR (1956)

Weirder (and ultimately more lethal) casting than as a frogman doing a yoga number with the Bride of Frankenstein is casting as… Genghis Khan!

Not only is The Conqueror (1956) one of the most embarrassing moments in Wayne’s career (right up there with the1952 pro-Joseph McCarthy film Big Jim McLain, the Duke in a Roman toga at the foot of Jesus’ cross in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the 1968 pro-Vietnam war film Green Berets) but this notorious Howard Hughes production literally (and ironically) killed the reigning star of Americana, along with its director , co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia, and Pedro Armendariz. Shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which had been previously used for atomic bomb testing, over half of the cast and production team (approximately ninety people) paid the price for unleashing this bomb with cancer: fifty, fatally. Over half the residents of the nearby St. George also were exposed to high levels of radiation and died of cancer, as did an undocumented number of the film’s Native American extras. Production photographs later surfaced of Wayne operating a Geiger counter on location. Apparently, it eventually dawned on cast and crew to be a tad concerned about being exposed to nuclear fallout.  Critics referred to the film as “An RKO Radioactive Picture,” and one of the scientists overseeing the atomic testing was later quoted (in a “People” interview) as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

Hughes certainly blamed himself. Already having fallen down the rabbit hole of mental illness, he was reportedly wracked with guilt, buying out all existing prints of the movie (to the tune of over ten million). He refused to let it be seen for years, and watched it repeatedly, nude, in a darkened room as he made frantic calls to politicians, trying desperately to exert his influence and stop the practice of atomic testing.

Wayne, already a cancer risk from heavy smoking, had a lung removed in 1964, but was one of the later Conqueror casualties, coming down with stomach cancer in 1978[1].

Still from The Conqueror (1956)Wayne initially (and incomprehensibly) defended what was clearly a casting disaster by claiming that the story of Genghis Kahn was merely transplanted western. Of course, as good an actor as Wayne was (and he was a damned fine actor, ungenerously underrated by far too many critics), that is the problem with his performance here: playing Genghis Kahn as a cowboy renders the character laughable. Casting aside, the barbarian dialogue (delivered in Wayne’s home-on-the-range drawl) is made more execrable with Wayne lusting after Hayward’s (redheaded) Bortai: “This Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her,” he announces anemically, followed by “you’re beautiful in your wrath” after she tries to stab her would-be rapist. The sight of the western icon adorned in a furry wife beater, Asiatic eye makeup, and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache is only surpassed by hearing lines like “I regret that I’m without sufficient spittle to salute you,” “you didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” “she is much woman,” and “you will love me of your own will before the sun rises.”

Hayward, equally miscast, seems to imagine herself as Salome, in a cleavage-bearing veiled dance that conjures up chintzy Vegas acts as opposed to the Orient or Bible. Wayne, rarely comfortable as a sex symbol (the only two leading ladies he seemed natural with in that department were Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell) disastrously fails to convince as an Asian . Later in life, Wayne admitted his humiliation and wrote making an ass of himself in a role not suited for him off as a professional lesson.

Powell was as ill-fitting in his directing assignment as the actors were in their roles, and the result is a dull epic (not even campy enough to be entertaining) and a box office failure, credited for being the final nail in the coffin of its studio as well as its cast and crew.

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the actor did not have cancer when making The Shootist in 1976, although he was in poor health. []

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.

Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.

DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.

By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. ‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”

Still from The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, Continue reading THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

CAPSULE: STRINGS (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Anders Rønnow Klarlund

FEATURING: Voices of James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, , Julian Glover

PLOT: Hal, Crown Prince of a kingdom of marionettes, disguises himself as a commoner to try to uncover his father’s murderer.

Still from Strings (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Strings is essentially a stock prince-grows-to-be-a-man-and-saves-the-kingdom high fantasy tale, but with a twist: everyone in the film is not only a marionette, they know they’re a marionette. The gimmick is used meaningfully, but given the standard-issue narrative, it’s not enough to movie this film from the “offbeat curiosity” into the “weird” column.

COMMENTS: Strings‘ basic plot, which involves an undercover prince, a kingdom in peril, intrigue and betrayal, prophecies, virtuous misunderstood rebels, appeals to the “power of love,” and a big battle at the end, is at the same time a bit confusing (with lots of characters, factions and subplots to keep track of) and overly familiar. That hardly matters, however, because the movie’s real pleasures come from admiring the meticulously constructed puppets as they dance across the boldly-lit diorama sets, and even more from the film’s creation of a complete marionette culture and mythology. The hand carved puppets have an Old World, doll-like charm, and although their faces are all frozen in neutral expressions, they exhibit an unexpected range of expressiveness just by raising or lowering their eyelids or tilting their heads that make them only slightly uncanny. The filmmakers make no attempt to hide the marionettes’ strings—even going so far as to title the movie after the darn things—and this is the most interesting and curious aspect of the  production. A dozen or more strings rise up from each character’s body, disappearing into the heavens above. A breathtaking aerial view illustrates why airplane flight would be impossible in this alternate reality, as we see thousands of strings rising above the moonlit clouds stretching up to infinity, each set connected to an invisible creature walking about the world below. The film explores every aspect of their strung-up existence; even the city gates and prison cells operate according to weird marionette logic. I won’t spoil every single thread, but it was fascinating to see the mystical “birth of a marionette” scene, as the mother brings the carved wooden block of a baby to life by painfully summoning strings to descend from the heavens, then attaching them to the lifeless wooden doll. It’s tough to figure out who this movie is aimed at—it’s too dark and weird for the kiddie matinee crowd, and not quite dark and weird enough for us—but that very singularity of vision and lack of a clear marketing angle gives it cult credibility. In the end, despite the fact that we don’t make much of a connection with the archetypal heroes, despise the stock villains, or feel much investment in the restoration of the kingdom, Strings still manages to be a visually beautiful and imagination-stimulating movie. And it finishes with an unexpectedly touching ceremony that takes the marionettes’ central metaphor, alien as it is, and uses it to tug a little on our heartstrings as well as theirs.

Strings contains a couple of nods to Shakespeare: the main character who seeks to avenge his slain father, the king, while being opposed by a deceitful uncle, bears a passing resemblance to “Hamlet.” Even more obviously, the protagonist who grows from a foolish boy to a competent king is named Prince Hal, just like the star of the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” plays.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Essence of movie’s weirdness lies in its initial conceit… not quite strange enough to appeal to hardcore arthouse auds who savor the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the like, but neither is it cutesy enough to cross over to the mainstream.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Teodor.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)