The Conqueror (1956 film)
This article is missing information about the film's production.(April 2015)
|Directed by||Dick Powell|
|Written by||Oscar Millard|
|Edited by||Stuart Gilmore|
|Music by||Victor Young|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|Box office||$9 million|
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. 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. The Conqueror was listed in the 1978 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. 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.
- John Wayne as Temujin, later Genghis Khan
- Susan Hayward as Bortai
- Agnes Moorehead as Hunlun
- Pedro Armendáriz as Jamuga
- Thomas Gomez as Wang Khan
- John Hoyt as Shaman
- William Conrad as Kasar
- Ted de Corsia as Kumlek
- Leslie Bradley as Targutai
- Lee Van Cleef as Chepei
- Peter Mamakos as Bogurchi
- Leo Gordon as Tatar Captain
- Richard Loo as Captain of Wang's guard
- Michael Wayne (uncredited) as Mongol guard
- Patrick Wayne (uncredited)
- Eleanor Tom (uncredited)
As Mongol extra
Production, nuclear incident, and cancer controversy
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. 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.
Parts of the film were shot in Utah locations such as Snow Canyon, Pine Valley, Leeds, and Harrisburg. 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. 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 but the federal government had assured residents that the tests posed no hazard to the public health.
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. Agnes Moorehead was a nonsmoker, teetotaler, and health fanatic, yet died of cancer. Her mother Mary maintained it was working on The Conqueror which ultimately killed Agnes. 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.
Reportedly, Hughes felt guilty about his decisions regarding the film's production, 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. The Conqueror, along with Ice Station Zebra, is said to be one of the films Hughes watched endlessly during his last years.
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.
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. 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. This statistic does not include the Native American Paiute extras in the film.
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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. The film premiered in London on February 2, 1956, before its Los Angeles premiere on February 22 and official theatrical release on March 28. 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.
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.'"
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- 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.'"
- 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."
The film was the eleventh most successful film at the North American box office in 1956, earning $4.5 million.
Comic book adaptation
- John Wayne filmography
- List of American films of 1956
- List of Asian historical drama films
- List of film and television accidents
- List of films considered the worst
- Whitewashing in film
- The Conqueror at the American Film Institute Catalog
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- The Conqueror at IMDb
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- The Conqueror at the American Film Institute Catalog
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