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Onscreen credits conclude with the following written foreword: "This story, though fiction, is based on fact. In the twelfth century the Gobi Desert seethed with unrest. Mongols, Merkits, Tartars and Karkaits struggled for survival in a harsh and arid land. Petty chieftains pursued their small ambitions with cunning and wanton cruelty. Plunder and rapine were a way of life and no man trusted his brother. Out of this welter of treachery and violence there arose one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known-a conqueror whose cunning changed the face of the world." Voice-over narration, spoken by Pedro Armendariz as his character "Jamuga," is heard briefly at the end of the picture. Although Title Guide to the Talkies lists the source of the film as John Clou's 1954 book A Caravan to Camul, Clou is not credited in any other source, or in the onscreen credits.
As depicted in the film, Temjin (1162-1227) first led a small group of Mongols, then defeated rival clan leaders until he was proclaimed Genghis Khan, or Universal Ruler, in 1206. In 1211, he invaded northern China, capturing Peking in 1215. Temjin declared war on Khwarezm, in the Middle East, after the governor of the city of Otrar ordered the massacre of a band of Muslim merchants under Temjin's protection. The war lasted for many years and earned Temjin the reputation as a brutal and vengeful conqueror. Temjin did marry a woman named Brte ("Bortai" in the film), but unlike in the film, he had been betrothed to her since childhood. Temjin's "blood brother" was a Karkait chief named Toghril ("Wang Khan" in the film), who persuaded Temjin's childhood friend Jamuka ("Jamuga" in the film) to help Temjin defeat the Merkits after they stole and ravished Brte. As depicted in the film, Temjin presented Toghril with a sable skin, which he had, in turn, received as a bridal gift. Unlike in the film, Jamuka, who had his own army, was not particularly loyal to Temjin, and at Brte's urging, Temjin broke with him and fought with him for control of the Mongol tribes.
Production on the picture was delayed for several months, due in part to indecision regarding which screen process to use. The Conqueror was the first RKO picture to be released in CinemaScope and, as noted in studio publicity materials, was the studio's most expensive production, costing six million dollars. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were scouted as locations, but filming took place in the Escalante Desert near St. George, UT, and Warner Canyon in Southern California. Three hundred Indians from the Shivwit Reservation were used as extras for the battle sequence, according to studio publicity material.
RKO borrowed Susan Hayward from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production. As noted in studio publicity, Armendariz was seriously injured when his horse threw him during the filming of one sequence and was hospitalized for eight days. Publicity also indicates that John Wayne's son Michael and director Dick Powell's son Norman appear in the picture as inept Mongol guards. Hollywood Reporter news items add Marie Ardell, Dian Myles, Salli Sorvo and Anna Cheselka to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter also announced that Barrie Chase was to perform a dance in the picture, but Sylvia Lewis is listed as the "solo dancer" in the CBCS and Variety review. Chase's appearance has not been confirmed. Modern sources note that Fred Cavens gave John Wayne fencing lessons in preparation for his part.
The Conqueror was the last film that Howard Hughes personally produced. Before the picture's release, Hughes sold RKO and its properties to General Teleradio for twenty five million dollars. According to Hollywood Reporter news items, at the time of General Teleradio's purchase, Hughes gave General Tire & Rubber Co., General Teleradio's parent company, an eight million dollar, three-year loan, payable in installments after the release of The Conqueror and Jet Pilot . News items indicate that the two films were used as loan collateral. Modern sources note that several years later, Hughes purchased the pictures from Teleradio for twelve million dollars. Although The Conqueror was a commercial and critical flop, Hughes reportedly loved the picture and watched it obsessively for years.
In January and February 1956, The Conqueror was given a series of highly publicized benefit premieres in Washington, D.C., Manila and European cities, including Paris, London and Berlin. Wayne's appearance at the Berlin premiere caused a near-riot, according to a January 31, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, as fans from both East and West Berlin stormed past border police to reach the theater. In 1974, Daily Variety announced that Paramount Pictures was re-releasing the film, but in April 1979, Hollywood Reporter stated that Universal had acquired the rights and that at the time of the purchase, the picture had not been screened publicly for twenty-one years.
In 1979, The Conqueror became embroiled in a controversy after residents of St. George alleged that radioactive fallout from a May 19, 1953 atomic bomb blast, which occurred at a test site in Yucca Flat, NV, 145 miles away, had caused an "epidemic" of cancer cases in the town. Ninety of the 220 crew and cast members who worked on The Conqueror, including Powell, Wayne, Armendariz and Hayward, also developed some form of cancer. According to a 1980 LAHEx article, Jeanne Gerson, who played Bortai's nurse in the picture, filed a class action suit against the U.S. government, alleging that she had contracted skin and breast cancer as the result of radioactive exposure during filming. The disposition of the suit is not known.
Other films about Genghis Khan include King of the Mongols, a 1964 Japanese picture, and Columbia's 1965 release Genghis Khan, directed by Henry Levin and starring Stephen Boyd and Omar Sharif (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70).