The Conqueror (1956 film)

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The Conqueror
The Conqueror (1956) film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDick Powell
Written byOscar Millard
Produced by
CinematographyJoseph LaShelle
Edited byStuart Gilmore
Music byVictor Young
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • February 2, 1956 (1956-02-02) (Premiere-London)[1]
  • February 22, 1956 (1956-02-22) (Premiere-Los Angeles)[1]
  • March 28, 1956 (1956-03-28) (US)
Running time
111 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6 million[2]
Box office$9 million[3]

The Conqueror is a 1956 American epic historical drama film directed by Dick Powell and written by Oscar Millard. The film stars John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz. Produced by entrepreneur Howard Hughes, the film was principally shot near St. George, Utah.

Despite the stature of the cast and a respectable box office performance, the film was a critical flop; it is often ranked as one of the worst films of the 1950s and also as one of the worst films ever made.[4] 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.[5] The Conqueror was listed in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.[6] Wayne was posthumously named a "winner" of a Golden Turkey Award for his performance in the film.


Mongol chief Temujin (later to be known as Genghis Khan) falls for Bortai, the daughter of the Tatars' 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 overcome the Tatars.


As Mongol extra

The role of Genghis Khan was originally written for Marlon Brando, but then Brando later backed out from the role.[7]

Production, nuclear incident, and cancer controversy[edit]

Of the 220 film crew members, 91 (comprising 41% of the crew) developed cancer during their lifetime, while 46 (or 21%) died from it. When this was learned, many suspected that filming in Utah and surrounding locations, near nuclear test sites, was to blame.[8] Although the number of cancer cases among the cast and crew is in line with the average for adults in the US at the time, the perception of a link between the film's location and subsequent illness remains, not least because many of those involved in the film developed cancer at a younger age than average.[8]

Parts of the film were shot in Utah locations such as Snow Canyon, Pine Valley, Leeds, and Harrisburg.[9] The exterior scenes were shot in the Escalante Desert near St. George, Utah, which is 137 miles (220 km) downwind of the United States government's Nevada National Security Site and received the brunt of nuclear fallout from testing active in this period.[10] In 1953, 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests occurred at the site as part of Operation Upshot–Knothole. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks at the site, and producer Howard Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain and lend realism to studio re-shoots. The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests[11] but the federal government had assured residents that the tests posed no hazard to the public health.[8]

Director Powell died of cancer in January 1963, seven years after the film's release. Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960 and killed himself in June 1963 after he learned his condition had become terminal. Wayne, Hayward and Moorehead all died of cancer in the 1970s. Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. Van Cleef's secondary cause of death was listed as throat cancer. Some point to other factors such as the wide use of tobacco – Wayne, in particular, was a heavy smoker, and Wayne himself believed his stomach cancer to have been a result of his six-pack-a-day cigarette habit.[12] Agnes Moorehead was a nonsmoker, teetotaler, and health fanatic, yet died of cancer.[13] Her mother Mary maintained it was working on The Conqueror which ultimately killed Agnes.[14] Several of Wayne and Hayward's relatives who visited the set also had cancer scares. 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.[8][15]

Reportedly, Hughes felt guilty about his decisions regarding the film's production,[11] particularly over the decision to film at a hazardous site. 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.[16][17] The Conqueror, along with Ice Station Zebra,[18] is said to be one of the films Hughes watched endlessly during his last years.[19]

Dr. Robert Pendleton, then a professor of biology at the University of Utah, is reported to have stated in 1980, "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." 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.[8][20]

Since the primary cast and crew numbered about 220, and a considerable number of cancer cases would be expected, controversy exists as to whether the actual results are attributable to radiation at the nearby nuclear weapons test site.[21][22] Statistically, the odds of developing cancer for men in the U.S. population are 43% and the odds of dying of cancer are 23% – very near what was found in this film crew.[23] This statistic does not include the Native American Paiute extras in the film.[24]


The Conqueror received an A classification (Equivalent to a 'PG' rating in the US.) from the British Board of Film Censors but also required cuts to obtain the rating.[25] The film premiered in London on February 2, 1956, before its Los Angeles premiere on February 22 and official theatrical release on March 28.[1] The film also had premieres in Washington, D.C., Paris, Rome, and Manila. Its premiere in Berlin led to a riot as young fans from East Berlin, which was part of East Germany but was not yet separated from West Berlin by the Berlin Wall, stormed past the DDR Border Troops to see John Wayne.[10]

After Universal purchased the film rights in 1979,[16] the studio released the film on DVD as part of their Vault Series on June 12, 2012.

Critical reception[edit]

The critical reception was negative:

  • A. H. Weiler of The New York Times called the film "an Oriental 'Western'" with a script that "should get a few unintentional laughs." Weiler wrote that John Wayne gave an "elementary" portrayal of Genghis while "constantly being unhorsed by such lines as, 'you are beautiful in your wrath.'"[26]
  • Variety called the film "a fanciful, colorful tale suggestive of the vivid period with a derring-do dash that pays off", adding, "The marquee value of the John Wayne-Susan Hayward teaming more than offsets any incongruity of the casting."[27]
  • Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film had "a storming quality about it over-all. Which unfortunately make some of the love scenes seem all but laughable." He added, "Powell deserves much credit for maneuvering the fierce and sensational battle scenes, which are a big highlight when Mongols and Tartars clash."[28]
  • Harrison's Reports wrote that general audiences "should be more than satisfied" by the "thrilling battle scenes" and "strong romance", but the story "does not come through the screen with any appreciable dramatic force, and the acting is no more than acceptable."[29]
  • John McCarten of The New Yorker called the film "pure Hollywood moonshine ... You never saw so many horses fall down in your life. Still, even though their tumbling is far superior to the antics of the actors, it presently becomes tiresome."[30]
  • Time magazine wrote that Wayne "portrays the great conqueror as a sort of cross between a square-shootin' sheriff and a Mongolian idiot. The idea is good for a couple of snickers, but after that it never Waynes but it bores."[6]
  • The Monthly Film Bulletin called it "a rambling and rather ordinary Western-type spectacle ... the weakly contrived narrative is singularly lacking in dramatic tension, and it is difficult to see this Temujin, for all his high-flown cries to heaven to support his destiny, as a potential world-beater or as even an amiable bandit. He is merely John Wayne struggling with an unfortunate piece of casting and with such embarrassingly silly lines as 'I feel this Tartar woman is for me.'"[31]
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer predicted success for the film: "should be a three bell ringer among the popcorn set....the film is aptly titled and after 111 minutes of gore and intrigue, Wayne sets himself up as Genghis Khan, with Susan Hayward beside him. Screen playwright Oscar Millard and producer-director Dick Powell have done competent work."[32]

The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.[33]

Box office[edit]

The film was the eleventh most successful film at the North American box office in 1956, earning $4.5 million.[34]

Comic book adaptation[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c The Conqueror at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (November 21, 1955). "Drama: Indie Setups Announced by Cummings, Chandler; Hello, Barry Fitzgerald". Los Angeles Times. p. 41.
  3. ^ "The Conqueror". The Numbers. Archived from the original on January 31, 2011. Retrieved August 22, 2011.
  4. ^ Francaviglia, Richard V.; Rosenstone, Robert A. (2007). Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. Texas A&M University Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-58544-580-6.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ a b Medved, Harry; Dreyfuss, Randy (1978). The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time. Popular Library. p. 61. ISBN 0-445-04139-0.
  7. ^ "The Conqueror: Hollywood gives Genghis Khan a kicking he won't forget | John Wayne | the Guardian". Archived from the original on September 4, 2020. Retrieved June 12, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e Jackovich, Karen G.; Sennet, Mark (November 10, 1980). "The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents". People. Archived from the original on January 31, 2017. Retrieved March 22, 2009.
  9. ^ D'Arc, James V. (2010). When Hollywood came to town: a history of moviemaking in Utah (1st ed.). Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. ISBN 978-1423605874.[page needed]
  10. ^ a b "The Conqueror". AFI Catalog. Retrieved June 9, 2022.
  11. ^ a b Adams, Cecil (October 26, 1984). "Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?" Archived August 13, 2020, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on September 13, 2010.
  12. ^ Bacon, James (June 27, 1978). "John Wayne: The Last Cowboy" Archived May 12, 2015, at the Wayback Machine. Us Magazine, June 27, 1978.
  13. ^ Tranberg, Charles. I Love The Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead (Albany, GA; BearManor Media), 2007, pages 175 & 176.
  14. ^ Tranberg, page 176.
  15. ^ Fuller, John G. (1984). The Day We Bombed Utah. New York: Dutton Books. ISBN 0-453-00457-1.
  16. ^ a b ""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". Archived from the original on April 23, 2019. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
  17. ^ Rabin, Nathan (2010). My Year of Flops. Scribner. ISBN 978-1-4391-5312-3.
  18. ^ Brown, Peter Harry; Broeske, Pat H. (2004). Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. Da Capo Press. p. 349. ISBN 0-306-81392-0.
  19. ^ Porter, Darwin (2005). Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd. p. 442. ISBN 0-9748118-1-5.
  20. ^ Olson, James (2002). Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6936-6.
  21. ^ Esson, Dylan J. "Did 'Dirty Harry' Kill John Wayne? Media Sensationalism and the Filming of The Conqueror". Utah Historical Quarterly. No. Summer 2003. pp. 250–65. JSTOR 45062793. Archived from the original on April 21, 2021. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  22. ^ "Was The Movie The Conqueror Really Cursed? A Look At Radiation Paranoia – Interscan Corporation". Archived from the original on September 27, 2018. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
  23. ^ "Lifetime Risk of Developing or Dying From Cancer". American Cancer Society. Archived from the original on November 25, 2016. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
  24. ^ A Short History Of Nuclear Folly, by Rudolph Herzog – Melville House (April 30, 2013)
  25. ^ "THE CONQUEROR (A) (CUT)". British Board of Film Classification. January 19, 1956. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved January 1, 2016.
  26. ^ Weiler, A. H. (March 31, 1956). "Screen: 'The Conqueror'". Archived April 20, 2019, at the Wayback Machine The New York Times. 13.
  27. ^ "Film Reviews: The Conqueror". Variety. February 22, 1956. 6.
  28. ^ Schallert, Edwin (February 23, 1956). "Wayne Spectacle Storming Affair". Los Angeles Times. p. Part II, p. 8.
  29. ^ "'The Conqueror' with John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendáriz". Harrison's Reports. February 25, 1956. 32.
  30. ^ McCarten, John (April 7, 1956). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 112.
  31. ^ "The Conqueror". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 24 (267): 28. March 1956.
  32. ^ Wilson, Barbara L. "'The Conqueror' at Mastbaum." Philadelphia Inquirer, 23 February 1956.
  33. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0.
  34. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  35. ^ "Dell Four Color #690". Grand Comics Database.
  36. ^ Dell Four Color #690 at the Comic Book DB (archived from the original)

External links[edit]