CINEMATIC CONTROVERSIES: THE CONQUEROR (1956)

Weirder (and ultimately more lethal) casting than as a frogman doing a yoga number with the Bride of Frankenstein is casting as… Genghis Khan!

Not only is The Conqueror (1956) one of the most embarrassing moments in Wayne’s career (right up there with the1952 pro-Joseph McCarthy film Big Jim McLain, the Duke in a Roman toga at the foot of Jesus’ cross in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, and the 1968 pro-Vietnam war film Green Berets) but this notorious Howard Hughes production literally (and ironically) killed the reigning star of Americana, along with its director , co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt, Ted De Corsia, and Pedro Armendariz. Shot in Utah’s Escalante Desert, which had been previously used for atomic bomb testing, over half of the cast and production team (approximately ninety people) paid the price for unleashing this bomb with cancer: fifty, fatally. Over half the residents of the nearby St. George also were exposed to high levels of radiation and died of cancer, as did an undocumented number of the film’s Native American extras. Production photographs later surfaced of Wayne operating a Geiger counter on location. Apparently, it eventually dawned on cast and crew to be a tad concerned about being exposed to nuclear fallout.  Critics referred to the film as “An RKO Radioactive Picture,” and one of the scientists overseeing the atomic testing was later quoted (in a “People” interview) as saying, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

Hughes certainly blamed himself. Already having fallen down the rabbit hole of mental illness, he was reportedly wracked with guilt, buying out all existing prints of the movie (to the tune of over ten million). He refused to let it be seen for years, and watched it repeatedly, nude, in a darkened room as he made frantic calls to politicians, trying desperately to exert his influence and stop the practice of atomic testing.

Wayne, already a cancer risk from heavy smoking, had a lung removed in 1964, but was one of the later Conqueror casualties, coming down with stomach cancer in 1978[1].

Still from The Conqueror (1956)Wayne initially (and incomprehensibly) defended what was clearly a casting disaster by claiming that the story of Genghis Kahn was merely transplanted western. Of course, as good an actor as Wayne was (and he was a damned fine actor, ungenerously underrated by far too many critics), that is the problem with his performance here: playing Genghis Kahn as a cowboy renders the character laughable. Casting aside, the barbarian dialogue (delivered in Wayne’s home-on-the-range drawl) is made more execrable with Wayne lusting after Hayward’s (redheaded) Bortai: “This Tartar woman is for me. My blood says take her,” he announces anemically, followed by “you’re beautiful in your wrath” after she tries to stab her would-be rapist. The sight of the western icon adorned in a furry wife beater, Asiatic eye makeup, and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache is only surpassed by hearing lines like “I regret that I’m without sufficient spittle to salute you,” “you didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars,” “she is much woman,” and “you will love me of your own will before the sun rises.”

Hayward, equally miscast, seems to imagine herself as Salome, in a cleavage-bearing veiled dance that conjures up chintzy Vegas acts as opposed to the Orient or Bible. Wayne, rarely comfortable as a sex symbol (the only two leading ladies he seemed natural with in that department were Maureen O’Hara and Gail Russell) disastrously fails to convince as an Asian . Later in life, Wayne admitted his humiliation and wrote making an ass of himself in a role not suited for him off as a professional lesson.

Powell was as ill-fitting in his directing assignment as the actors were in their roles, and the result is a dull epic (not even campy enough to be entertaining) and a box office failure, credited for being the final nail in the coffin of its studio as well as its cast and crew.

  1. Contrary to popular belief, the actor did not have cancer when making The Shootist in 1976, although he was in poor health. []

2 thoughts on “CINEMATIC CONTROVERSIES: THE CONQUEROR (1956)”

  1. John Wayne drank like a fish, smoked heavily, worked in a pile of radioactive fallout – and still managed to live to 72. I’d say he was doing pretty good.

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