The Conqueror (film)

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For other uses, see Genghis Khan (disambiguation).
The Conqueror
The Conqueror (1956) film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Dick Powell
Produced by Dick Powell
Howard Hughes
Written by Oscar Millard
Starring John Wayne
Susan Hayward
Agnes Moorehead
Pedro Armendáriz
Thomas Gomez
John Hoyt
Music by Victor Young
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Edited by Stuart Gilmore
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • February 22, 1956 (1956-02-22) (Premiere-Los Angeles)[1]
  • March 28, 1956 (1956-03-28) (US)[1]
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6 million
Box office $9 million[2]

The Conqueror is a 1956 CinemaScope epic film produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Other performers included Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz. Directed by actor/director Dick Powell, the film was principally shot near St. George, Utah.

The Conqueror was a critical flop (often ranked as one of the worst films of the 1950s and one of the worst ever)[3] despite the stature of the cast. Wayne, who was at the height of his career, had lobbied for the role after reading the script and was widely believed to have been grossly miscast[4] (he was "honored" by The Golden Turkey Awards). Years later, The Conqueror was included as one of the choices in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.

Reportedly, Howard Hughes felt guilty about his decisions regarding the film's production,[5] particularly over the decision to film at a hazardous site (see Cancer controversy below). He bought every print of the film for $12 million and kept it out of circulation for many years until Universal Pictures purchased the film from his estate in 1979.[6][7] The Conqueror, along with Ice Station Zebra,[8] is said to be one of the films Hughes watched endlessly during his last years.[9]


Mongol chief Temujin (later to be known as Genghis Khan) falls for Bortai, the daughter of the Tartar leader, and steals her away, precipitating war. Bortai spurns Temujin and is taken back in a raid. Temujin is later captured. Bortai falls in love with him and helps him escape. Temujin suspects he was betrayed by a fellow Mongol and sets out to find the traitor and to overcome the Tartars.



The film has a reputation as a flop but was the 11th most successful film at the North American box office in 1956, earning $4.5 million in rentals.[10]

The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.[11]

Cancer controversy[edit]

The exterior scenes were shot on location near St. George, Utah, 137 miles (220 km) downwind of the United States government's Nevada National Security Site. In 1953, extensive above-ground nuclear weapons testing (11 total) occurred at the test site as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks on location, and in addition Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain and lend verisimilitude to studio re-shoots.[5] The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests[5] but the federal government reassured residents that the tests caused no hazard to public health.[12]

Director Dick Powell died of cancer in January 1963, seven years after the film's release. Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960, and committed suicide in June 1963 after he learned his condition had become terminal. Hayward, Wayne, and Moorehead all died of cancer in the 1970s. Cast member actor John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. Skeptics point to other factors such as the wide use of tobacco — Wayne and Moorehead in particular were heavy smokers. The cast and crew totaled 220 people (although IMDB lists a much smaller number). By the end of 1980, as ascertained by People magazine, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer and 46 had died of the disease. Several of Wayne and Hayward's relatives also had cancer scares as well after visiting the set. Michael Wayne developed skin cancer, his brother Patrick had a benign tumor removed from his breast and Hayward's son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth.[12][13]

Dr. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, stated, "With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91 cancer cases, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law." Indeed, several cast and crew members, as well as relatives of those who died, considered suing the government for negligence, claiming it knew more about the hazards in the area than it let on.[12][14]

However, the odds of developing cancer for men in the U.S. population are 43 percent and the odds of dying of cancer are 23 percent (38 percent and 19 percent, respectively, for women).[15] This places the cancer mortality rate for the 220 primary cast and crew very near the expected average; but, this would assume that few new cancers or cancer-related deaths have occurred among cast and crew members since 1980. These data are unavailable.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Conqueror: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved June 2, 2014. 
  2. ^ "The Conqueror". The Numbers. Retrieved 22 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Francaviglia, Richard V.; Rosenstone, Robert A. (2007). Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. Texas A&M University Press. p. 55. ISBN 1-58544-580-0. 
  4. ^ Monush, Barry (2003). Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the Silent Era to 1965. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 773. ISBN 1-55783-551-9. 
  5. ^ a b c Adams, Cecil (October 26, 1984). "Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?". Retrieved on September 13, 2010.
  6. ^ "In 1974, Daily Variety announced that Paramount Pictures was re-releasing the film, but in April 1979, Hollywood Reporter stated that Universal had acquired the rights and that at the time of the purchase, the picture had not been screened publicly for twenty-one years." - Turner Classic Movies
  7. ^ Rabin, Nathan (2010). My Year of Flops. Scribner. ISBN 1-4391-5312-4. 
  8. ^ Brown, Peter Harry; Broeske, Pat H. (2004). Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. Da Capo Press. p. 349. ISBN 0-306-81392-0. 
  9. ^ Porter, Darwin (2005). Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd. p. 442. ISBN 0-9748118-1-5. 
  10. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  11. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0. 
  12. ^ a b c Jackovich, Karen G.; Sennet, Mark (1980-11-10). "The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents". People. Retrieved 2009-03-22. 
  13. ^ Fuller, John G. (1984). The Day We Bombed Utah. New York, New York: Dutton Books. ISBN 0-453-00457-1. 
  14. ^ Olson, James (2002). Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6936-6. 
  15. ^ American Cancer Society.  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]