In the vast tapestry of Hollywood’s cinematic history, few films have garnered as much controversy and somber reflection as John Wayne’s “The Conqueror.”
On the surface, it was a bold epic, aiming to capture the life and conquests of the legendary Genghis Khan.
Yet, beneath its cinematic sheen lay a series of contentious decisions that would forever mark its legacy.
From the audacious casting of Wayne, an emblem of American Westerns, as the Mongolian warlord, to the haunting revelations of its fatal impact on the very crew that brought it to life, “The Conqueror” stands as a stark testament to the complexities and responsibilities of filmmaking.
This article delves into the tumultuous journey of a film that faced not only the ire of critics but also bore the weight of real-world tragedies.
The Conqueror: A Brief Overview
Directed by Dick Powell and produced by Howard Hughes, “The Conqueror” aimed to depict the life and conquests of Genghis Khan.
The film’s plot centers around the Mongol leader’s obsession with the beautiful Bortai, played by Susan Hayward, and his rise to power.
While the movie boasts grand battle scenes and a sweeping narrative, it’s often remembered more for its casting choices and historical inaccuracies than its cinematic achievements.
The Duke Takes on the Khan
John Wayne, affectionately known as “The Duke,” was an icon of American cinema.
With his tall stature, rugged looks, and unmistakable drawl, Wayne embodied the spirit of the American West in films like “Stagecoach,” “True Grit,” and “The Searchers.”
So, when news broke that he would be portraying Genghis Khan, one of history’s most formidable conquerors, many were left scratching their heads.
Controversies and Criticisms
The decision to cast Wayne as Genghis Khan was met with skepticism from both critics and audiences.
Many felt that Wayne’s portrayal lacked authenticity, with his Western mannerisms and accent feeling out of place in the Mongolian setting.
Additionally, the film faced criticism for its lack of cultural sensitivity, with many Mongolian characters being played by Caucasian actors in “yellowface.”‘
John Wayne’s decision to play Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” was, surprisingly, largely his own idea.
While meeting with director Dick Powell to discuss various projects, Wayne stumbled upon the screenplay for “The Conqueror,” which had initially been developed with Marlon Brando in mind.
Wayne, seeing the script as a Western, was enamored with it. Despite Powell’s attempts to dissuade him, Wayne was set on taking the lead role in the epic.
This decision would later be one he regretted, with Wayne himself admitting that he was ill-suited for the part.
A Radioactive Production
The film’s production faced challenges beyond its casting controversies.
“The Conqueror” was filmed in the desert outside of St. George, Utah, alarmingly close to the Nevada National Security Site, a primary nuclear testing facility for the U.S. Government.
In the years following the film’s production, nearly half of the cast and crew, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and director Powell, contracted cancer.
The film was, quite literally, shot under a radioactive cloud.
Between 1951 and 1962, over 100 atomic bombs were detonated at the Nevada site.
The year before “The Conqueror” began production, 11 nuclear tests were conducted as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole.
Despite assurances from the Atomic Energy Commission about the safety of nuclear testing, the long-term effects of radiation exposure were not well-understood at the time.
As the film faced production challenges, nuclear fallout was silently drifting over the set.
The Tragic Aftermath
The repercussions of filming in such a hazardous location became evident in the years that followed.
An investigation in 1980 revealed that 91 of the 220 people on set had developed cancer, with 46 succumbing to the disease.
The leukemia rates in St. George were found to be five times higher than the national average.
Victims of the nuclear fallout, known as “downwinders,” have since received over $2.2 billion in compensation.
Howard Hughes’ Overwhelming Guilt
Producer Howard Hughes, deeply affected by the tragic outcomes, reportedly spent $12 million to buy every print of “The Conqueror” to keep it out of the public eye.
It’s believed that Hughes, wracked with guilt, watched the film repeatedly in his private residence, perhaps as a form of self-punishment.
The film remained unavailable to the public until 1979 when Universal acquired it from Hughes’ estate.
Legacy of “The Conqueror”
“The Conqueror” stands as a poignant reminder that the allure of the silver screen can sometimes mask real-world tragedies. W
hile its casting choices remain a topic of debate, the film’s deeper legacy is a testament to the unforeseen repercussions of decisions made in pursuit of cinematic grandeur.
As we reflect on the film’s impact, both on and off the screen, it underscores the profound responsibility filmmakers bear, not just to their craft, but to the safety and well-being of those who bring their visions to life.
“The Conqueror” serves as a cautionary tale, urging us to tread with care, awareness, and respect in all endeavors, reminding us that some legacies, once forged, can never be undone.