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Super Joe Reed, Janet Lee, Evel Bowevel
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Hold Court on Sunset
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The Five-O Farewell
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40 Years
January 1963
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30 Years
Kris & Rita – 1973
20 Years
Iron Man – 1983
Kerry Von Erich
10 Years
Kerry Von Erich
Previously on Five-O
Issue Two
Swingtime Strippers
Issue One
New World Evel


Film-going in the 1950s was a dicey proposition. The moralistic radiation of mass conformity in America was threatening to bleach the bodily humors right out of cinema. All that would remain would be a halo of faded pink and a bunch of unwatchable nonsense.

That's where Howard Hughes came in - an aging tycoon gigolo who could damn well do as he pleased. "Scarface" was his ace of spades as producer in the early '30s, and in the early '40s he gave the nation a stereoscopic eyeful of the amazing Jane Russell in "The Outlaw." That's in between personally setting world records in transcontinental aviation, defiling a parade of starlets under contract to him as boss man at RKO, and getting richer than God in the oil drilling business.

By the '50s Hughes wanted his cinema ripping and lusty, bigger and ballsier, louder and more color-saturated than anything ever before. Fair enough, but with "The Conqueror" there was a twist - Hughes envisioned cowboy idol John Wayne as the medieval Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.

"Say whaaa...? Genghis Khan, as in cowboys and barbarians?"

"Yes, Grasshopper. But beware the jive of a honky disguised for kung fu, for on that path lies grave danger."

Strangely, Howard Hughes never heeded this eerie warning, perhaps because it was delivered by a disembodied Shao-Lin monk. Anyway, the Movie Mongol figured he had a sure bet: to rake in a bank-busting profit from the suckers dialing through the turnstiles by the million to ogle the supple flesh and twirling blades of the Orient. Hughes spent a then-record six million dollars on this unlikely make-over, all for his chance to celebrate a lustier, more barbarically honest brand of human nature - phonies and bible thumpers be damned.

There's one catch. For everyone born after "The Conqueror" was made, it's almost impossible to view the spectacle as anything but a "through the looking glass" dimension of "Star Trek," with Howard Hughes in place of Gene Rodenberry as Moral Overlord, in a world where the good guys are the Klingons, and John Wayne is their
Captain Kirk.

Yep, there was raping, slashing, ravaging, pillaging - and these were the good guys. Or at least the doubles for the producer's ego. The "Rated R" film was still nearly 20 years away, but it was really born right here.

Unsurprisingly, the movie was a multi-megaton dud, the biggest flop of 1956. But good Americans, take heart - the turn-stiles are still spinning on the freak show. Having heard tell of this picture and read testaments to its awfulness for 25 years, then viewing it in the same conditions as general audiences fifty years ago, we are proud to bestow upon "The Conqueror" special status as the first official "Film Bête Noir."

What is "Film Bête Noir"? Excellent question. The French expression "bête noir" describes a subject to be feared or avoided. For our purposes, namely a rubbernecking celebration of bad films which were wretched failures in their day, yet prove unexpectedly entertaining in revival, the following requirements apply:

1. We Demand A-List Talent on Parade in Expensive, Degrading High Profile Spectacles ("Conqueror"), Vanity Projects ("Hudson Hawk"), or Desperate Career Missteps ("The Manitou").
2. Results Must Be Notoriously Indulgent, Bizarre, Preposterous or Embarrassing.
3. Commercial Disasters Are Preferred.

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, Coburn, Matthau, 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 as long as
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 audience reality.

"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, manages to 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 slay ride).

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: "THE CONQUEROR".

So maybe this emblematic moment is the place to ask: who is this man, "John
Wayne," 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.

But 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 enemies 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' break!

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. Imagine 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 holocaust.

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 up paperwork
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, or
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 this too.

So let us give thanks to the civil defense marshals at American Cinematheque: 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.


World Poker Tour
World Poker Tour
Introducing the NASCAR
of Texas Hold-em
Tree Sitter
Tree Sitter
John Quigley
Onboard "Old Glory"
The 400-Year Old Oak
Bartok Takes A Bride
Eqyptian Theatre
All-Stars Party
with Thai Elvis
Malvin Wald
Malvin Wald
The Naked City Writer
on Al Capone and
Ronald Reagan
HEll House
Hell House
Interview with Filmmaker
George Ratliff
The Conqueror
Bow Down, Tartar Dogs!
It's John Wayne as
Genghis Khan
Film Noir
Film Noir Fest 2003
Black Lightning Strikes
at the Egyptian
Forrest J Ackerman
86th Birthday Bash for
Famous Monster
Funk Photos
The Funk Does
Charlton Heston
Omega Man
A Very Lemmy
Yuletide at the
Rainbow Room
Charles Phoenix
Charles Phoenix
Big Laughs in
Xmas Parade
The Hollywood
Christmas Parade
Unholy Spectacle of
Glitter and Filth
theron productions