And that pretty much gets it. So many answer the call yet
so few are chosen. Let's name names to the subcommittee.
"Myra Breckinridge." Freaking horrible, famously
so, and an expensive
disaster with a solid gold cast: Raquel Welch, Mae West, John
Huston, Farrah Fawcett. One of the worst scripts by one of
cinema's worst first-time directors. Absolute bollocks.
"Candy." Even author Terry Southern couldn't stand
the all-star disaster they made out of his celebrated smut
comedy. Never mind the participation of Richard Burton, Brando,
John Huston - it was unclean and ungood and not popular and
spelled the end for the director's career. Bête Noir.
I know what you're saying. What about the "The Postman"?
And "Battlefield Earth"? The answer? Yes. By all
the gods of cinema (Thoth, Hermes, Loki, The Holy Spirit etc.):
two notorious, money-sucking sci-fi stink bombs with impeccable
credentials as "Film Bête Noir."
But don't forget, the A-List talent in question need not
be the star players. They can be the producer (George Lucas
and "Howard The Duck"), a hot director-scripter
team (Paul Verhoeven & Joe Eszterhas's "Showgirls"),
or even a gallery of special guests (eg. Bob Hope, Milton
Berle, Frank Sinatra and loads more tainted by "The Oscar,"
the most inadvertently hilarious movie in the genre) - just
some over-reaching Icarus is dogged by the foul stench of
a high profile failure.
There are disputed borders - I nominate "Reflections
in a Golden Eye," the John Huston freak show starring
Brando and Liz Taylor despite its Achilles heel, a modest
budget. Yet if it's obscene wastefulness you demand then there's
"Cleopatra," "Heaven's Gate," "Inchon,"
"Waterworld," the bad "Godzilla," "Town
& Country" - many titles to debate, some fiscally
disastrous to the max, yet are
they artistically deformed enough to make the cut? Are the
Infamous AND Bad?
Then there's the sub-category of the "Lost" Film
Bête Noir: monumentally awful duds whose true infamy
has been obscured with time. "Lost Horizon" from
1973 is a good object lesson, with everyone from George Kennedy
to Burt Bacharach taking the smackdown. Ditto "The Happiest
Millionaire," starring Fred MacMurray, Walt Disney's
last testament and one of his most bizarre disconnects from
"The Manitou" pokes up its ugly head here as well,
a medium budget independent oddity that, despite trying to
steal every single popular motif from movies of the '70s,
exist as a naked singularity, oblivious and forever alone.
Picture this: being trapped in the passenger seat with the
100-decibel funk of composer Lalo Schifrin gunning the engines
at the same time the lead boots of goofy writing and farcical
directing stomp down on the brakes. And there's a cast of
A-1 vets stranded in the headlights - Tony Curtis and Michael
Ansara are literally clinging to each other for their lives
and dignity in this supernatural thriller guaranteed to test
your bladder with laughter, which plagiarizes its way to the
history books as Film Bête Noir par excellence.
In the end, while many titles are debatable ("Mandingo,"
"Tank Girl," "Little Nicky"), for a select
few there can be no doubt: this is Film Bête
Noir in all its glory. In this category "The Conqueror"
is the benchmark for the genre.
It's worth mentioning that Dennis Bartok programmed this
baby for Cinematheque's 4-Track Stereo Mag Festival. An original
35 mm print delivered the goods with rich, clear, whistling
sound behind Victor Young's four star score (as wild as Berlioz,
as observant as Ravel: the rocket fuel for this whole jolly
Maybe because "Conqueror" release prints never
got the blockbuster work-out they were intended for, this
print's condition and color were quite good
- super high-test Technicolor Cinemascope visuals shot in
the beautiful St. George, Utah desert near where the U.S.
Army was helping itself to some nuclear weapons test blasts.
The result is fine, eye-popping desert photography by daylight,
and funky Hollywood interiors with rugs woven by the Yuma
Indians supplementing the Mongol chic from tent to tent.
Every penny of Howard Hughes' Six Million 1956 Dollars (a
good $120 million today) is screaming for your attention onscreen.
All in all, if this movie fails, it's certainly not because
they scrimped on the size of the galloping hordes. And John
Wayne's hundred suits of armor are incomparably boss-a-mundo
- though at one point the Mongol warlord is inexplicably portrayed
brandishing a Japanese samurai sword.
The pic starts off robust and ridiculous, and for the most
part never lets up for 111 minutes. At home on tape, the run
time may seem more leaden
and a bit less thrilling. But at the Egyptian, in eye-popping
Scope, with a stable full of hipsters throwing in just the
right surround-sound medley of fascination,
approbation and audible scorn, plus the pulse-enhancing Eastern
riffs of Victor Young's orchestra filling every corner of
the hall: it's safe to say you are getting the optimum read
the title allows.
Indeed, track conditions at the Egyptian are fast and "The
Conqueror" scores right away with a killer title sequence,
The Duke on his warhorse at the head of the charge, in full
gallop over rolling desert hills in Mongol Chinese battle
armor, big ass scimitar hoisted high, war horns blowing, hooves
trampling - behold, Ghengis Khan! - a tableau seared to the
memory by that ultra-masculine block lettered title overhead:
So maybe this emblematic moment is the place to ask: who
is this man, "John
this American Emperor of popular cinema? History records a
baby born Marion Morrison, a USC football star given his key
showbiz breaks by cowboy star Tom Mix and master directors
Raoul Walsh and John Ford. After ten years busting his hump
in the trenches with Republic and Monogram serials, Wayne
became the most successful film actor in the world, with the
most leading parts (142) in history.
When asked for his preferred epigram in 1969, Wayne quoted
a phrase he learned in Mexico: "Feo fuerte y formal"
or "He was ugly, strong and had dignity." Well,
Duke - two out of three ain't bad.
At least strong and ugly were no stretch for a guy who, by
the early '70s, was openly preaching genocide: "I don't
feel we did anything wrong taking this great country away
from (the American Indians)... There were great numbers of
people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly
trying to keep it for themselves."
Here was a millionaire with a mansion and a yacht, who owned
mines manned by blacks in the Congo, while his policy at
home was: "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks
are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe
in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment
to irresponsible people."
Okaaay. Sieg fuckin' heil, Pilgrim!
It brings to mind Wayne's 1971 diatribe prompted by the question,
what kind of films do you consider perverted?
Wayne: "Wouldn't you say the wonderful love of those
two men in 'Midnight Cowboy,' a story about two fags, qualifies?
But don't get me wrong. As far as a man and a woman is concerned,
I'm awfully happy there's a thing called sex. It's an extra
something God gave us. I see no reason why it shouldn't be
in pictures. Healthy, lusty sex is wonderful."
You like your lusty intercourse heterosexual, which is blessed
by God and is good to go onscreen. OK, Mr. Wayne, we copy.
you know what? Redneck politics aside, you may still be surprised
how well Duke plays this crazy concept movie overall. He's
so good at the game after 20-something years in the trenches
he can damn nearly sell the script's unsteady brand of sex-crazy,
barbaric hero-speak: "She is woman, much woman. Why should
her perfidy be less than other women?"
"Perfidy," Duke? What the hell kind of fancy two-dollar
college word is that
supposed to be? While you're recovering from that, here comes
the ringer of all six reels - Khan grabs his resistant hostage
and unloads his dialogue like so: "Know this, Tartar
woman -- I take you for a wife!"
It's bad, people. Suffering God, does it stink.
Yet there is a paradox at work. It's partly the showbiz know-how
of Dick Powell, a leading man from '30s musicals and
'40s film noir who turned to producing and directing in the
'50s; and it's partly John Wayne's natural performing confidence,
but I have never seen a cowboy hero gussied up like a Mongol
warlord who can rape and pillage with such innate nobility.
You've heard of date rape, but what about "escape rape"?
That's where our lovable Toxic Avenger is holding Bortai,
his Tartar wench (Susan Hayward), hostage in his tent when
her tribesmen mount a raid to rescue her. But the Mongol Mack
grabs his trophy girl, runs her across the wilds and hides
her under a rock ledge - then the whole craven spectacle shifts
to the surreal when Wayne begins raping her on the spot.
At first Bortai resists, but with a flash of silver nail
polish she pulls herself to him, willingly. Got that? They
want it! Cock-teasing Tartar wenches, all of them! By the
way, this scene, with its climactic flourish of Victor Young's
big score, is a very convincing facsimile of actual fucking
- one of cinema's most graphic to date. "Healthy, lusty
sex is wonderful." Yick!!!
As "feo y fuerte" as all this sounds, the forceable
intercourse and numerous slap downs do eventually get Susan
Hayward to fall for our big Mongoloid alpha male. But that's
simply not enough degradation. First she has to join a competitive
love triangle with his "Blood Brother" best buddy,
Jamuga, played to the best of his ability by Mexican star
Pedro Armendáriz (Buñuel's "El Bruto").
The thing is, they also signed up Hollywood heavy Thomas
Gomez ("Force of Evil," "Key Largo") to
portray Chinese Lord Wang Khan, whom he renders as a gay,
incompetent Charlie Chan. So, to add to the rape culture rhapsody
and the confusion of John Wayne playing one of history's most
un-misunderstood villains as a lovably noble, ultra-violent
nomadic frat boy, he's also up to his ever-so-slightly
slanted eyeballs in Mexican Chinamen. This mutation, at least,
you can't blame on the nearby A-bomb tests. Then there's John
Hoyt as Wang Khan's royal spirit-reader and counselor "Shaman,"
a villainous mandarin in direct tribute to both Fu Manchu
and Flash Gordon nemesis Ming the Merciless. "The Conqueror,"
I tell you - it's like John Wayne buck wild on Planet Mongo!
Hoyt is a guy whose career sprawls from noir classic "Brute
Force" (1947) to "Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985), with
a resume of TV guest shots that reads like 30 years of TV
Guide: "Lone Ranger," "Zane Grey," "Gunsmoke,"
"Wagon Train," "Rifleman," "Zorro,"
"Leave It To Beaver," "Perry Mason," "Untouchables,"
"Rawhide," "Twilight Zone," "Bonanza,"
"Outer Limits," "Get Smart," "I Spy,"
"Beverly Hillbillies," "Star Trek" - the
direct connection between Rooster Cogburn and the Klingons!
- "The Big Valley," "Time Tunnel," "Hogan's
Heroes," "Police Woman," "Battlestar Galactica"
- Holy Hell! Posthumous Emmy for this guy Hoyt on the double!
Mind you he's also in killer features like "The Big Combo,"
"Blackboard Jungle," and "Spartacus" -
AND he plays Professor Gordon in the famous soft-core porno
"Flesh Gordon" (1974).
Add in Ted de Corsia ("The Naked City"), Agnes
Moorehead ("Citizen Kane") William Conrad ("The
Killers"), even Lee Van Cleef ("The Octagon"),
and you've got yourself a blue ribbon cast - Ted de Corsia
specifically prefiguring a Bob Guccionne-style sleazy '70s
barbarian lifestyle that's a full 20 years ahead of its time.
This production also initiates something I've yet to see
elsewhere: a meet-cute where the leading man literally rips
the woman's clothes off - a hell of a job of tricky cutting
too. You see, Genghis is just having a little fun - and making
a point about the Tartar dog who killed his father. As for
Bortai the Tartar sexpot? She's like, sure, he ripped my clothes
off, but he intrigues me, this well-hung Mongoloid. I must
aspire to utilize my perfidy upon him. What's more, just as
you lament the spit-takingly bad dialogue in one scene, the
next presents unexpected treasures, like the brilliant, deluxe
Oriental dance sequence choreographed by Robert Sidney, a
diamond in the rough and a stand-alone formal masterpiece.
Another meaty moment arrives with Wayne solo, a barbarian
down on his luck, arms outspread atop the mountain, drawling
oaths and bellowing pagan prayers for more men to slay his
and avenge his father. I can practically see Dick Powell now:
"OK, Duke, you're really gonna have to sell this scene.
You want revenge for your dad!" Then there's an absurd
scene where Ghengis Khan, under the yoke of his enemies, is
pantomiming the suffering Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha.
Khan Wayne? - maybe. But Genghis Christ??? Gimme a frikkin'
What else can you expect from a film that opens with a crawl
promising to give the entire planet a John Wayne facial? -
"a warrior whose coming would change the face of the
world." And which ends on the sappiest closing voice-over
ever to praise a mass murdering psychopath, delivered by his
obviously closeted "best friend" Jamuga, who in
the final reel petulantly opts for ritual suicide once his
ex-boyfriend takes the Tartar wench for his bride - so let
me get this straight: "Midnight Cowboy" is supposed
to be weird and gay?
"Let my death be bloodless," Jamuga moans, "so
that I may counsel the great Khan from the afterworld."
Oy vey, the guilt! Pinche, maricon!
A Film Bête Noir of rare pedigree. Duke made very few
misfires in his reign, and nothing to rival this. Certainly
this spectacle requires enshrinement in the Psychotronic Hall
of Fame. Its pioneering depiction of the Chinese water torture
alone assures express admission.
And it's a fit companion to Cinematheque-friendly pagan epics
like Sirk's "Sign of the Pagan" (Jack Palance as
Attila the Hun), DeMille's "Samson &
Delilah" (Vic Mature as the ass-kicking Israelite paesan),
Hawks' "Land of the Pharaohs" (Joan Collins raising
boners on the Nile), and the movie that finally got it all
right: "The Vikings," starring Kirk Douglas as deadly
Einar the Barbarian - and that's the key: let the barbarian
be the Bad Guy! It makes more SENSE.
But wait! Don't leave your seat just yet, because we saved
the Big One for last. Khan Wayne's booty-sacking adventures
were preceded by megaton rarity "Survival City"
(1955)! Good God, is this ever big. Keenly disguised as a
20-minute civil defense film, this little gem soon revealed
itself as the all time great mushroom cloud freak-out, cheerfully
engineered to give Americans nightmares for life.
It's just a sunny, life-after-WWIII propaganda piece striking
similar chords to classic '50s scholastic films starring,
say, Jiminy Cricket or Billy the Hygienically Challenged Boy.
the grisly sensibilities of "Red Asphalt" from driver's
ed, mixed in with a smidgeon of "Bambi vs. Godzilla"
from Spike 'n Mike fame, with a refreshing splash of TV fave
"A Family Affair" and you've got a hint of the many
moods of "Survival City," the greatest big screen
demolition montage since the incomparable "Zabriskie
Point" ran here on the big screen two years ago.
It breaks down like this. If "Zabriskie Point"
equals Antonioni Consciousness amped up by Pink Floyd, then
"Survival City" equals Eisenhower Consciousness
lensed by the love-child of Disney and Eisenstein.
Yes, it's a civil service training film, explaining how members
of your small
town may soon be called to witness a A-Bomb test to better
perform under fire in your real-life home town when the inevitable
detonation goes down.
Let's be clear: the A-Bomb blast is the most photogenic taboo
occurrence in the world. And this film wastes no time delivering
the goods, dropping the Hammer of Hades just like the commies
are itching to: as soon as possible and without warning.
As if to numb us into a steely resolve, the yawning plume
of atomic death is sprung early and repeated several times
and from different angles. Even removed by half a century,
the devastating impact of the end of the world left the air
thin in the main auditorium of the Egyptian - a notable feat
in a room often packed with windbags - and filled this reporter
with the irrepressible urge to stand up and scream, "Check
your shorts people, this shit's for real!"
So I breathed a sigh of relief when the 1955 equivalent of
Bob Saget began his narration on how goodly U.S. scientists
are striving to learn just what it takes to survive a nuclear
After the first wave of psycho-terrifying bomb footage, the
movie backs up a few paces to the pre-detonation preparations.
Bus-loads of fully-clothed mannequins in all shapes and sizes
are unloaded and placed inside dummy housing. Moms in the
kitchens or in bed, Dads in their offices, kids on their bikes.
We watch as they're propped up in buildings and houses, on
the streets and underground: life-sized nuclear voodoo dolls
taking the full brunt of all that commie blood-lust so that
we don't have to - yet.
Along with the dummies, the scientists place food, water
and other perishables in position for later testing. And of
course, underground bunkers are thrown into the mix with father
and son mannequin teams, which immediately sparked the question
in my mind: how many bunker-crazed survivalists did this 20-minute
celluloid snippet single-handedly drive to desperation?
At that instant onscreen before mine eyes, hell's own fury
was unleashed. The first blast hits: your town, instant
wasteland. But don't ever, ever forget about the atomic one-two
punch. As the damnation cloud rises, it's as if it's horrible
lust for death is sucking all the light and heat it's belched
out back inside its own core. Everything's gone black around
the edges... I never thought it could really happen - dear
God, is this The End???
And then WHAMMO! Like a chain reaction sucker punch, the
evil, second, triumphal ultra-satanic blast - full exposure,
the moment where there is literally a Beast of Death with
a hideous face and form filling the sky in every direction.
This, my friends, is the famous Double Flash. First it shockwaves
out and rears up, sucking in everything it can, feigning darkness,
then it slams down a second, even more fatal blastwave of
malevolent atomic power.
The KO punch. The Bite-The-Bible-And-Die Special. Mannequin-Moms
and Dads down for the count. Mannequin-boys and girls charred
and disintegrated. Buildings rattled to ruin, houses blown
down. Aluminum walls of trailer homes ripped open like rice
paper. Pompeii-style ash silhouettes on walls, skin falling
off, children with their faces burned away, survivors dropping
dead in their tracks. It's all there in a skinny little tome
called "Hiroshima" for anyone who cares to repent
while there's still time.
I should add this double feature selection is no coincidence,
since the Conqueror Curse consigned a chilling number of its
cast to an early grave of cancer, legend has it, due to the
fall-out from nearby Army A-bombings. A suitably ironic way
for superhawk Wayne to perish, so say his detractors. If you
ask me, it was probably tobacco related - the lucrative nicotine
super-weapon of Philip Morris still kills hundreds of thousands
more every year than Fat Man & Little Boy did in 1945.
Nevertheless, Howard Hughes biographer Richard Hack did dig
indicating that sand believed contaminated by fall-out was
trucked in from the location to flippin' RKO studios in Hollywood
so the cast could shoot additional scenes of the exotic orient
while soaking up enough wicked-hot ions to have their hair
dropping in clumps in the make-up chair. Howard Hughes and
Khan Wayne. Holy Hell, what a couple of operators.
And Dick Powell too was something of a nuclear expert, since
as director he used the Big One as the leverage for tension
in the hostage drama "Split Second" (1953), featuring
a rousing finale of characters trying to haul ass out of a
desert ghost town before the imminent blast of US Army-grade
fissile plutonium at the top of sixty foot platform -- BOOM.
Roll credits. Did they get away? Funny, I don't remember.
But I sure as hell remember the A-Bomb sealing the deal.
We demand a Special Posthumous Oscar for Anthony Muto, director
of "Survival City," whose only other credit as director
is "Carioca Carnival" (1955), a 20-minute travelogue
of Brazil at Carnival. So there you have it, six of one, half
dozen of the other. Checking out the Carnival action in Brazil,
mannequins roasting like pork on a spit in a bona fide U.S.
Army nuclear test blast, all the while cheerily telling us
to be prepared, because we may by required to live through
So let us give thanks to the civil defense marshals at American
as we soft-target types continue to stand by for dirty bombs
and heathen sneak attacks, the double feature of "Conqueror"
and "Survival City" simply could not be more timely.
It's worth noting that last year Cinematheque screened several
sterling '50s Westerns starring Randolph Scott ("7 Men
from Now"), and the Robert Stack adventure "The
Bullfighter & the Lady," each directed by Budd Boetticher,
and produced by John Wayne - simply outstanding work and a
fitter memorial to the Duke's quest for dignity.
Of course it only redoubled our dedication to screen key
Wayne titles like "The Alamo," "The Green Berets"
and "The Barbarian and the Geisha" - in 35 mm Scope
if the cine-gods and the high priests of the vault are willing.
Never settle for home video when you can follow the motto
of Grauman's Egyptian Theatre and "see and hear the movies
where the stars do."
Shrouded in the misty fall-out of Father Time, whatever these
further adventures of John Wayne Super-American may bring,
we're secure that his day in the sun as Genghis the Mighty
Khan will live in infamy for the delight and instruction of
mankind. May our deaths be bloodless so that we may continue
to pursue the elusive White Buffalo of Film Bête Noir
in the afterlife.
Nate Nichols & Fabian Marquez
Screened December 7, 2002.