The Killer Movie (literally)

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The film the Conqueror was released in 1956. The film was directed by Dick Powell, starred John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and co-starred Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, John Hoyt, and Pedro Armendariz. Last and certainly not least, Howard Hughes financed and produced the film. For 1956 standards, this was the dream line up of actors, producer, and director. This movie should have done exceptionally well at the box office, right?

Well… the Conqueror had a respectable box office performance, it ended up as the 11th highest-grossing movie of that year (4.5 million), but it was a critical flop. It is often ranked as one of the worst films ever. In particular, the performances of John Wayne and Susan Hayward were widely panned. Though both actors would go on to make many more movies (Hayward won an Oscar for best actress just two years later), the film is seen as a stain on everyone’s resume. Though it did make the Razzie list of 100 most enjoyable bad movies of all time (that’s something right?). Who among us can’t help but laugh at John Wayne’s terrible accent, lousy makeup, and wooden acting in the film.

Though all of this is enough to get this movie listed on this blog, there were even more horrors than just John Wayne accent and makeup in the film. The horrors start where the movie was filmed at. Conqueror was filmed partly in Saint George Utah. For those of you unfamiliar with Saint George Utah, it sits 137 miles downwind from the United States Nevada National Security Site. In 1953 the United States tested 11 (yes 11!) above-ground Nuclear weapons test at the Nevada National Security Site. When Hughes was looking for production sites to shoot the Conqueror, they inquired about St. George and the close proximity to the nuclear testing. The U.S. Federal Government assured Hughes his team and residents of St. George that the tests will not cause any hazard to public health.

The film crew spent many weeks in St. George and even had friends and family visit them while on set. Hughes also sent 60 tons of dirt from St. George to Hollywood for reshoots on the movie, so the reshoots can have the same terrain as the other parts of the movie filmed in St. George.

Powell died of cancer in 1963, 7 years after the movie was released. Armendariz was diagnosed with Kidney cancer in 1960 and committed suicide after he learned his cancer was terminal. Hayward (brain cancer), Wayne (stomach and lung cancer) and Moorehead all died of cancer in the 1970s. Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. The total cast and crew of the movie totaled 220 people. By the end of 1980, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer, and 46 of them died of the disease. Both of Wayne’s Sons who also visited the set Michael (skin cancer) and Patrick (benign tumor in the breast) got some form of cancer though both survived. Hayward son, Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. Yes, he also visited the set.

Hughes felt guilty about his decision to shoot the film in St. George. He bought every print of the movie for 12 million and kept it out of circulation for many years until Universal purchased the rights to the film from his estate in 1979. All in all, over 100 nuclear tests were facilitated at the Nevada National security site in the 1950s. The soil around some regions of St. George remained dangerously contaminated until 2007.

Mistakes Were Made:

One would think Hollywood using white males to play lead ethnic characters would be a relic of the past right? Well, how do you explain Exodus Gods and Kings (released in 2014) with Chrisitan Bale in the Moses role and no actors of African descent playing any of the Egyptians? What about the Great wall (released in 2016)? A film based in Medevil China, with a white savior role played by Matt Damon? Hollywood there are a lot of great ethnic actors in the world, how about casting them when you tell these ethnic stories instead of a white male actor, trust me they have plenty of roles they can get.

Not a good idea to shoot a movie close to a nuclear weapon testing site. Especially one where the U.S. tested 11 above-ground weapons just 3 years before they started shooting. John Wayne, son’s played with Geiger counters around contaminated rocks on set and no one thought hmm, perhaps we shouldn’t be shooting here? Or at the very least I don’t want my friends or family anywhere around this shoot. Wayne and Moorehead both smoked cigarettes heavily, and they both blamed their cancers on smoking. But 91 out of 220 catching cancer? The kids catching cancer? That’s way more than a statistical coincidence.

I’m unsure if the U.S. Government was unaware of the effect of radiation fallout in the 1950s or they just straight out lied to Howard Hughes and crew and the residents of St. George about the area being completely safe to film in and live in. Either way, it’s a failure of leadership and government. The descendants of the deceased should bring a negligence claim against the U.S. govt, but given the passage of time, it will probably be a hard case to prove.

In the bigger picture, all these people died prematurely from making and shooting a crappy movie! It’s like damn if I’m going to die from participating in a film, I would want it to be some kind of masterpiece. I would want to go out like Heath Ledger in Dark Knight. It’s a double whammy of making a crappy movie but also having half the cast and crew die from making said movie. From the selection of the production site, U.S. government telling lies, the cast bringing their friends and families on set, John Waynes Accent, and make up a lot of mistakes were made in the Production of the Conqueror.

Originally published at on July 15, 2019.

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