There are obviously some poor movies out there; Plan 9 From Outer Space always gets a bad press and then there is Sex Lives of the Potato Men, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie and Avatar. Read on though and I think you will agree that none of them are as disastrous as the 1956 film The Conqueror. I’d not really heard of it until very recently but checking it out, I have come to the conclusion that it must be by far the worst mistake Hollywood has ever made.
The Conquerer stars John Wayne as Temujin, a young warrior in thirteenth century Mongolia, who falls in love with the princess of another tribe. Passions run high, there are betrayals, kidnappings and tribal battles and our protagonist is driven by his heart to fight for justice, setting off a sequence of events that lead to him becoming Genghis Khan. It’s like watching a 1200s set version of Young Winston if Churchill turned into Hitler at the end.
Apparently the film had been written with Marlon Brando or Richard Burton in mind and the sophisticated prose was designed to suit their theatrical backgrounds. Following their lack of interest, the project was going to be scrapped but Wayne’s name became attached and it went into production. The actor took the role very seriously, dieting extensively to get in shape for the role.
The film was the eleventh most successful film in terms of box office that year but it was torn apart by the critics and is considered to be significantly responsible for the death of its production company RKO, which ceased making movies months later. Wayne eventually regretted making the film saying that the moral of the movie was ‘not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for’.
The film is certainly cliched and overly melodramatic by any modern standards and feels like one of those biblical epics that were popular at the time. It doesn’t even begin to compare to The Ten Commandments but is not so far away from Tyrone Power starrers like The Robe and Samson and Delilah. Unfortunately, as Wayne himself realised too late, The Duke was no Tyrone Power. He is the biggest problem with the film and watching him in it is painful. His limited range really shows and, although no one hesitated to put Mickey Rooney in the worst kind of racist make up five years later in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, no effort was made at all to make Wayne seem oriental other than putting a pointy hat on his head. He doesn’t look or sound any different to how he did as Rooster Cogburn, Brannigan or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and he just doesn’t belong in the movie. Audiences did not suffer like this again until Keanu Reeves did Shakespeare in 1993.
Of course there are other films with similar horror stories to tell but The Conqueror’s crimes are far greater than regrettable miscasting, corporate suicide and poor artistic integrity.
It was shot on location near St. George in Utah which in itself does not appear to be of any great significance but unfortunately this was approximately 130 miles downwind of the Nevada National Security Site. This was the place where only two years earlier the US Government had conducted extensive experiments with above ground nuclear weapons. The cast and crew spent several weeks there and also, when LA reshoots were required, producer Howard Hughes had sixty tons of the same desert sands shipped to Hollywood. All told the film makers spent months kicking around in what was undoubtably highly radioactive dirt.
The director was the first to contract Cancer and die just seven years later. Actor Pedro Armendariz, best known for From Russia With Love, followed as did Agnes Moorhead, leading lady Susan Hayward and of course John Wayne himself. In total, ninety one of the two hundred and twenty people involved in the film had been diagnosed with cancer within twenty five years of the wrap party, forty six of them passing away from the disease.
Of course this could all be coincidence. The American Government had assured the film makers that there was no danger before shooting began and Wayne and Moorhead, among others, were heavy smokers. Nothing has ever been proven but experts have said that statistically there should have been around thirty cases of cancer in a group of people this size and the fact that it was three times more than this would firmly suggest a link. A strong enough link, according to Dr. Robert Pendleton – professor or biology at the University of Utah, to bring a court case against the government although this never happened.
Apparently when commenting on this, one scientist from The Pentagon’s Nuclear Defence Agency is on record as having said ‘Please God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne’. Hughes on the other hand paid $12 million trying to buy up every existing copy of the movie and would not allow it to be shown on TV, so convinced was he that his film had been responsible for this staggering amount of sickness and death.
As I said at the start, there are plenty of terrible movies. There are lots of stories about films losing obscene amounts of money and sadly we’ve all know that motion pictures have killed people, most famously Rob Morrow being decapitated by a helicopter on The Twilight Zone and Brandon Lee getting shot on The Crow. Surely though, never has all this come together to such terrible magnitude. With regard to films they wish they’d never made, this has to be top of the list.