Tag Archives: John Wayne

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. []

CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

"Elm Road Drive-In Theatre" by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA
Elm Road Drive-In Theatre” by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA – Elm Road Drive-In Theatre. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre  western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).

The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.

The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in cinema. Even when our family started going, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, outdoor cinemas were Continue reading CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

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)

JOHN WAYNE AND THE SHOOTIST (1976)

Marlon Brando is not the quintessential American male movie star. That honor belongs to John Wayne. John Wayne was a shrewd actor who carefully manufactured his on screen persona. For many, Wayne represents the All-American WASP, yet he was of Irish descent and a Roman Catholic. Most of the B western actors had a favorite horse. In his B western beginnings, Wayne had the horse Duke, yet he disliked horses, preferred slacks and dinner jacket to western duds, wore a toupee through most of his career, and felt more at home on his boat than he ever did on a ranch.

In addition to the being the archetypal cowboy, Wayne represented the ideal American soldier, yet he never served a day in the military. When the second World War broke out in 1941, many of Wayne’s contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda, all enlisted. These actors were already established as “A” list stars in 1941. Even with Stagecoach (1939) behind him Wayne was not yet secure in his career and still languished in numerous “B” films. Wayne saw this as a golden opportunity, while the competition was away, to grab the number one spot, and he did just that. It was less a case of draft dodging, and more a calculating career move, one for which John Ford would relentlessly needle him ever after. The war interrupted the careers of numerous actors, such as George Reeves, who seemed to be on the way up, but had not yet established themselves in a large enough body of “A” productions. Upon his return, Reeves and many others found they had been virtually forgotten while they were away, never to regain their previous career position, let alone surpass it. So much for studio patriotism towards its contract players.
Still from The Shootist (1976)
Wayne symbolized American virtue, yet he had countless affairs with married women. Some maintain he was racist. In a 1971 interview he made naive and blatantly ignorant remarks about African Americans and Native Americans, yet he enjoyed working with African American co-stars, and was drawn to native American spirituality, an interest on display in his film Hondo (1953), produced and distributed by Continue reading JOHN WAYNE AND THE SHOOTIST (1976)