It is the story of Genghis Khan (Wayne) and his rise to power. The great Khan, then called Temujin, is at the time the movie starts already the lord of his own tribe of Mongols. Temujin and his band stumble across a caravan of Tartars, sworn enemies of the Mongols, their chief Kumlek having murdered Temujin's father. Among this caravan is Kumlek's luscious daughter Bortai (Hayward), who had been promised to marry a Tartar prince, Tartugai. Temujin takes a fancy to Bortai, attacks the Tartar caravan, and carries her away, against the advice of his lancer Jamuga. This triggers a war between the Mongols and the Tartars, with Temujin appealing to the Chinese forces of Wang Khan for aid.
The Conqueror is one of the most notorious films ever made in Hollywood, for multiple reasons. It was part of the death spiral of RKO Pictures under Howard Hughes. Despite actually doing pretty well at the box office, it still couldn't recoup its bloated budget, and RKO went out of business not long after. It is a member of the WTH, Casting Agency? hall of fame, with John Wayne John Wayne being cast as Genghis Khan, wearing some sort of brown makeup with a silly Fu Manchu mustache.
And then there's how it may have killed a bunch of people. The film was shot in the desert of southwest Utah, downwind of and three years after Operation Upshot-Knothole, a series of nuclear weapon tests, in the deserts of Nevada. After many of the cast and crew died of cancer, including director Powell and all the stars, some have hypothesized that fallout from the detonations, most notably the "Harry" shot due to its high fallout deposition, caused their cancers. There's no concrete reason to believe that, and it's entirely possible that other factors, like the fact that most of them, as it was common of those days, were chainsmokers, led to the illnesses, but the notion of radiation fatalities has been associated with The Conqueror ever since.
- Ambiguously Gay: Wang Khan, who is kind of fussy and effete, and has two muscular shirtless male slaves attending him in the bath.
- As You Know: Lots of very awkward expository dialogue introducing people.Targutei: [to Bortai] Your father Kumlek did well to destroy the old Mongol chief.
Temujin: [to his brother Kasar] Our little brother exercises himself.
- Bedlah Babe: Wang Khan's dancers are mostly dressed in the standard bra-and-hot-pants outfit, as is Bortai for much of the movie, like when she shucks off her wrap and follows up the dancers with a dance of her own.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Bortai and Temujin, like when she curses him but then responds to his kisses, or when she has sex with him but later tries to murder him by flinging a sword at him.
- The Blade Always Lands Pointy End In: Like when Bortai ends her sexy-dance-with-two-swords by flinging one of the swords at Temujin, only for it to stick in the table next to him. Later the shaman flings a dagger at Temujin which lodges in the doorway.
- Chekhov's Skill: Temujin's little brother Kasar is introduced bending iron rods for his own amusement. Later in the movie, Kasar bends the iron bars in the window of a prison cell, allowing Jamuga to escape.Kasar: At last, a purpose worthy of these muscles.
- The Chessmaster: The shaman. Wang Khan and Temujin would have allied with each other left to their own devices. But the shaman first convinces Wang Khan that Temujin is laying a trap, then convinces Temujin that Wang Khan has betrayed him, leading Temujin to attack Wang Khan's city of Urga, where the shaman opens the gates. The idea was for the shaman to rule Urga under Temujin, and it might have worked if the shaman hadn't failed to finish off Wang Khan, allowing Wang to reveal the shaman's treachery before he dies.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Kumlek tortures Jamuga for three days in an effort to find out where Temujin is but Jamuga won't tell.
- The Conqueror: Although Temujin doesn't actually do a lot of conquering in The Conqueror, most of the story having to do with the romance with Bortai and vengeance for Temujin's father. He does take over Wang Khan's people after the shaman betrayed them, and he defeats the Tartars and kills Kumlek in the climactic battle.
- Dirty Coward: After the Tartar caravan is attacked by Temujin, Bortai's betrothed Targutei runs for it, abandoning her to Temjuin.
- Fanservice: An utterly pointless scene—well, no point other than Fanservice—in which Temujin and his host Wang Khan sit down and watch a dancing show featuring a lot of hot half-naked women.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: In the movie, Jamuga is Temujin's loyal Lancer, who refuses to betray him. In Real Life, Jamuga did betray Temujin, becoming his sworn enemy and main rival for the Mongol khan.
- Kubrick Stare: Temujin delivers one to the shaman after learning of the shaman's treachery which led to the death of his brother.
- The Lancer: Jamuga, Temujin's loyal sidekick and all-around efficient second-in-command. He's so loyal that at the end of the movie, after Temujin erroneously thought Jamuga had betrayed him, Jamuga asks Temujin to kill him to remove all doubt.
- Lima Syndrome: Bortai doesn't realize that she loves Temujin until he is captured by her tribe, tied to a yoke, and tortured.
- Male Gaze: Very obvious in the shot where Temujin first meets Bortai, and the camera tracks all the way up her body as she lounges in the cart in a slinky white dress.
- Misplaced Wildlife: Temujin's tribe has a black panther as a pet. On the steppes of Central Asia.
- No Name Given: Wang Khan's duplicitous shaman is never named.
- Race Lift: While Yellowface was used for all the male actors, no effort whatsoever was spent on making Susan Hayward (an American of Irish and Swedish descent) look like someone from Central Asia. Instead she looks just like Susan Hayward—gorgeous, and very, very white.
- Romanticized Abuse: Temujin, who has been strangely polite for a nomadic warlord kidnapper, finally slaps Bortai across the face, and leaves the tent. She then gives him a look of longing as he goes.
- Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: For the entire movie, with stilted, awkward dialogue from beginning to end.Temujin: I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar woman.
- Shown Their Work: An odd bit of detail for a movie that mostly flushes history down the drain. But in the end, Jamuga asks to be executed in such a manner that no blood be spilled. This actually happened. In Real Life, Temujin's soldiers broke Jamuga's back.
- Stockholm Syndrome: Has obviously kicked in by the time Bortai lets Temujin have sex with her after he whisks her away following an enemy raid. She's back to hostility later, though, setting up the Lima Syndrome.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "This story, though fiction, is based on fact." Space does not permit going into all the ways The Conqueror makes a hash of history, but here's one: Temujin didn't kidnap Bortai. In fact, theirs was an Arranged Marriage between clans.
- Temujin´s father Yesugai, on the other hand, did kidnap Hoelun, Temujin`s mother. It is possible the movie adapted this episode for the Rule of Drama.
- Would Hit a Girl: Temujin hauls off and slaps Bortai after she makes a crack about hoping vultures eat his heart.
- Yellowface: Good lord. One of the most notorious examples of all time. John Wayne, a white boy from Iowa who played cowboys in the American west, wears bronzer and a Fu Manchu, and acts like he's Genghis Khan. There isn't a single Asian actor in the movie. Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, who at least didn't need the tanning lotion, plays Temujin's sidekick Jamuga.
- You're Cute When You're Angry:Bortai: For me, there is no peace while you live, Mongol.
Temujin: You're beautiful in your wrath.