Ok, first a quick disclaimer: today is John Wayne’s birthday so, before actually diving into what our creative director calls “one of the most cancerous shit shows of all time”, understand that I’m actually a fan of the Duke. I honestly like him. He’s so … well … Duke-y. He’s been in some of the greatest films ever made: Stagecoach. The Searchers. Red River. The Quiet Man. McClintock! (Just kidding on that last one. Although … not actually kidding.)
But, one day, the movie gods decided to play a very, very bad joke on this paragon of American strength and … this movie happened. John Wayne biographer Scott Eyman once called it “the world’s biggest Ed Wood movie” and I am hard-pressed to think of a more appropriate observation because, without question, The Conqueror is one of the worst movies ever made.
In an effort to be fair, on paper The Conqueror sounds as though it might have something going for it. In addition to Wayne, there’s a sexy leading lady at the top of her game, Susan Hayward; a power producer, Howard Hughes (we’ll get to that later, don’t worry), equipped with a big splashy budget for plenty of big splashy fight scenes; and Dick Powell– yes, that Dick Powell– who had not only reinvented himself as a serious actor but had even directed his first feature, the tight, tense 1953 noir thriller Split Second. Even the story itself sounds kinda sorta entertaining: a Mongol warrior named Temujin rises to power by conquering enemy tribes as well as the love of a fiery enemy princess, before finally becoming the conqueror: Genghis Khan.
Unfortunately, everything, every single last thing, about this film– from the actors to the director to the producer to the location shoot itself– suffers from a catastrophic case of all around bad casting.
You don’t even have to have seen the film to know that that John Wayne, let alone the film, bears zero historical resemblance to the real Genghis Khan nor his rise to power in 12th century Mongolia. Just take a look at the movie posters. Bad in every language:
Marlon Brando had already been approached to play the lead in the project, but after the critical success of On the Waterfront, Brando had, mercifully, found an excuse to weasel his way out by citing other obligations. John Wayne was almost done with a three-picture deal at RKO and, by all accounts, it had not been a positive experience working with RKO’s enigmatic head Howard Hughes. When Wayne was called to see Dick Powell to over potential scripts, Powell was stunned when Wayne retrieved The Conqueror from the wastebin. Powell had tossed it, thinking it “absurd”. But when Wayne insisted, Powell acquiesced. “Who am I to turn down John Wayne,” he said later.
It all went downhill from there.
Susan Hayward as Princess Bortai is a painfully embarrassing anachronism: her perfectly coiffured flaming red hair, rouged lips, and slinky negligees belong in The Cocoanut Grove or Perinos–not the Gobi Desert. (Although … “exotic” dance is pretty … well. Let’s just say it’s probably the only reason to watch the film.)
Wayne pictured the Mongolian warrior like a Western gunslinger … which, unfortunately, is exactly how he played the part. Wayne referred to the film as a “Chinese Western”, and to prove it he is painted in unmistakable yellowface, given cringe-worthy eye maikeup, and a “Fu Manchu” style mustache, all the while playing the role of Khan just as he would any of his swaggering Western heroes. (Remarkably, Wayne would also make The Searchers later that year: a film often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, delivering one of his very finest performances.) The script, which has been maligned by critics since its release, didn’t help matters either. Oscar Millard’s script is at its best painfully stilted, with dialogue like “Woman, I take you for wife”. In fact, most all of Wayne’s dialogue with Hayward is uncomfortably violent. When he’s not slapping her around, he’s grunting lines like “I stole you. I will keep you. Before the sun sets, you will come willingly into my arms!” And yes, The Duke’s flat American drawl only makes it worse.
But casting wasn’t the only problem. The production was riddled with disaster after disaster. A flash flood wiped out a number of sets and for a while looked to wipe out the cast. At one point, Susan Hayward narrowly escaped being mauled by a panther. Off screen, Hayward took her boredom out with the bottle and drunkenly tried to entice Wayne into an affair. (The fact that Wayne’s wife was also on set did not help Hayward’s advances.) Even Wayne, by all accounts a professional during working hours, medicated himself a bit too much: one co-star recalled that one morning at breakfast he had the shakes so bad he had to wrap his arm in a towel to keep his hands from shaking.
But these unmistakable bad omens prophesied much darker results than even the film’s meager box office and the bad reviews that cinched its fate as one of the worst films ever made. The Conqueror has also been infamously known as an “RKO RadioACTIVE Picture”. Shot on location in the sweltering Utah desert, a little over 100 miles downwind from the Nevada Nuclear Test site where the US military had recently conducted ELEVEN above-ground nuclear tests. The nuclear fallout clouds had drifted to the exact location of The Conqueror’s location shoot.
Producer Howard Hughes was assured by the Atomic Energy Commission that the area was free from contamination and for 13 grueling weeks, cast and crew worked in radioactive sand. Many believe this may have been a contributing cause for the high number of cancer related deaths that would eventually strike the crew. By 1980, 46 of the 220 cast and crew had succumbed to a cancer-related illness including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Dick Powell. This fact has led many to calling The Conqueror as “the film that killed John Wayne.”
Howard Hughes sorely regretted the decision to shoot there, and became a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons testing throughout the Cold War. An embarrassed Hughes also spent double the cost of production, a whopping $12 million dollars, trying to buy up every copy of the film in an effort keep it from ever being seen again. He kept it that way until his death in 1979.
As for Wayne? Tight-lipped about the film for the rest of his career, the Duke did have this to say about the experience: “Don’t make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.” Drop mic.
But then again, The Conqueror is probably the perfect “bad movie night” movie, and as long as you watch it with friends and a bottle of vodka, you’ll probably have a good time.