There are bad movies, and then there are bad movies. I occasionally blog about bad films, or films considered to be bad which really aren’t. The Conqueror, the 1956 Howard Hughes biopic starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan, is in a class by itself. It’s not just a bad movie, it’s possibly an evil one, and certainly a tragedy–not just cinematically, but a real life human tragedy.
First, the film itself. It’s horrible. In the 1950s, RKO Radio Pictures got the idea to do a biopic of Genghis Khan, the great Mongol conqueror of the Middle Ages. Okay, that’s not a bad idea–Temujin (Genghis Khan’s birth name) had an incredible life story, and one that would make an epic movie. In the 1950s Hollywood was competing desperately with television, so anything epic or spectacular, beyond the budgetary or technical reach of television to do, was considered a good investment. Howard Hughes, the sometime aviator who scored big in the movies with Hell’s Angels (1930), Scarface (1931) and The Outlaw (1943), put up the money. Then they cast…John Wayne?
This has got to be one of the most ridiculous casting decisions in cinema history. At the time, though, it might not have seemed as ludicrous as it does now. Hollywood was extremely racist in the 1950s, and studios would not hire Asians except in supporting roles, usually as servants, sidekicks or bad guys. Keye Luke was one of the very few Asians who was allowed to work in Hollywood. The idea of giving an Asian actor in Hollywood a leading role in a movie, much less a big-budget one, was an absolute impossibility. Thus it was destined from the start that Genghis Khan would be played by a white guy in makeup.
So why not John Wayne? In 1954, the year the film commenced production, he was at the top of his game and big box office. He probably seemed, if not a natural choice, at least not an unnatural one. The purpose of this picture was not to educate the world about Genghis Khan or be faithful to history. The purpose of the picture was to make money.
This “trailer” for The Conqueror was made in recent times by a YouTube user with modern computer software, in the style of 21st century trailers. Evidently all the original trailers for this film from the 1950s have been lost.
So, mistake #1, casting John Wayne. That wasn’t fatal. The choice of where to shoot the movie, though–that was fatal. To John Wayne, and a lot of other people.
You see, Howard Hughes and director Dick Powell decided to shoot the movie in the desert near St. George’s, Utah, which was downwind of a military nuclear weapons testing facility. Indeed several above-ground atomic tests had been conducted in 1953 just before filming began–this was before the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty prohibited atmospheric nuclear tests. The lingering effects of nuclear weapons testing was poorly understood in 1954, and not likely to have been publicized if it was understood. The film shot for three months in the summer of 1954, exposing all the cast and crew to radiation.
Then an even greater mistake was made. Howard Hughes ordered reshoots of parts of the movie back in Hollywood. In order for the shots to match, the filmmakers trucked 60 tons of earth from St. George’s, Utah back to Hollywood to line the sets with. Yes–the same contaminated, radioactive dirt–thus exposing everybody again.
The Conqueror’s premiere took place on February 22, 1956. The film was savaged by critics and John Wayne’s performance as Genghis Khan was singled out for particular ridicule. Nonetheless, the movie was a success, grossing $9 million, $3 million over its budget. That was big money in the mid-1950s. John Wayne, however, was embarrassed and vowed he would never make another casting mistake like this again.
In the decades that followed, The Conqueror took a terrible human toll on those involved in its creation. By the beginning of the 1980s, 91 members of the cast and crew had come down with cancer. The film’s director Dick Powell died of cancer in 1960. One of the stars, Pedro Armendariz, shot himself after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Co-stars Agnes Moorehead and John Hoyt both died of the big C. And the Duke himself, John Wayne, succumbed to cancer in June 1979.
Howard Hughes, who by the 1950s was a recluse who almost never came out of his screening room or Las Vegas hotels, felt so guilty that he paid $12 million to buy up every copy of the film, mainly to prevent it from ever being shown on television. Hughes, who was not present at the filming, died in 1976.
In any event the attempt to suppress the film didn’t work. It’s on YouTube–the whole thing. I absolutely do not recommend watching it, because it’s a really, really bad film, but should you feel masochistic, here it is.