Credit: ©RKO/Blue Fox Entertainment
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout — William Nunez

June 24, 2024

A cautionary tale of Hollywood hubris that’s essentially been lost to time — thus negating its effectiveness as said cautionary tale — Dick Powell’s 1956 historical epic The Conqueror is the sort of film maudit that exists to inspire ridicule and disbelief. Dreamt up by aviation tycoon and occasional film magnate Howard Hughes, The Conqueror depicts the ascendant early years of Mongol warrior Temüjin, more widely known to Western culture as Genghis Khan, who through superior military instincts and wanton cruelty conquered much of Asia in the 13th century. Lavishly staged, shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope, and featuring the sort of sex and violence its eccentric producer was so fond of and which gave the censors fits, the film was meant to serve as the costly — its budget of $6 million would have made it one of the most expensive films produced up to that point — relaunch of RKO Studios under Hughes’ new ownership. And the film, which centered on perhaps the most famous person of Asian descent in the history of the world, was to star John Wayne wearing a Beatles wig and glued-on Fu Manchu. It’s the sort of “what were they thinking?” debacle which was even roundly criticized at the time as Wayne and fellow Caucasian actors Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, William Conrad, and Lee Van Cleef spoke fortune cookie dialogue and were made up in yellowface, all to appear in one of the most laborious and stilted films of the 1950s; proving the adage there’s no accounting for taste, the film grossed double its budget at the box office before Hughes eventually bought the rights back and pulled it from circulation for decades. The Conqueror likely would have been solely the domain of film scholars and junk cinema enthusiasts if it wasn’t for one uniquely tragic element of the production: it was filmed predominantly in St. George, Utah, approximately 140 miles downwind of hundreds of above-ground nuclear tests during the ’40s and early ’50s.

William Nunez’s The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout offers a dishy blow-by-blow of the troubled production, albeit leaning heavily on historians and secondhand accounts — the now senior citizen children of Wayne, Hayward, and Powell do their best to flesh out perspectives of their long-deceased parents despite being only children at the time the film went in front of the cameras — that lays out exactly how a film this terrible came to exist. We learn, for instance, that screenwriter Oscar Millard knew so little about the subject before accepting the assignment that he couldn’t even spell Genghis Khan’s name correctly when searching the British archives and that his attempts to interject purple prose into the screenplay stymied the dramatically limited Wayne; that the leading man was so drunk during the table read that he passed out; that Hughes cast the red-headed Hayward incongruously as a Tatar princess because he had designs on sleeping with her, something her now grown son confirms came to fruition after production wrapped (he also blabs that during the shoot Hayward would sneak off to Wayne’s rented house across the street in the middle of the night, claiming “she wasn’t there to get a bagel,” which sounds like someone trying to avoid salacious innuendo and failing miserably). It all makes for amusing cocktail party gossip, but almost as if by virtue of how successful Hughes was at burying the film and how poorly The Conqueror has endured — in a climate where fiascos are routinely reappraised and seemingly no film is so universally loathed that you can’t dig up some academic to champion its misunderstood greatness, it’s telling that, to a person, every interview subject expresses mortification if not outright disgust with the film — the analysis and documentation remains entirely surface level, largely playing like a DVD special feature or narrated Wikipedia entry. Or certainly that would be the case if we weren’t constantly being reminded of the catastrophic long-term health effects suffered by the cast and crew, as well as the residents of St. George and its surrounding areas.

Revealing The Conqueror to be an unwitting snuff film, Nunez chronicles the cascading cancer diagnoses that in rapid succession befell Powell, the actor Pedro Armendáriz, Moorehead, and Hayward, all of whom would be dead within 20 years of the production wrapping (Wayne famously dealt with multiple bouts of cancer, but hung on until 1979). In fact, according to a People Magazine article published in 1980, of the 220 cast and crew members reported on, 91 had developed some form of cancer, although it should be noted that many of these people were also heavy smokers and Wayne himself downplayed the role of nuclear fallout in his own ailments. These well documented maladies are contrasted with the less well-known cancer clusters that decimated St. George. We hear testimonials of the then-children of the 1950s recounting classmates showing up to school with amputated limbs and brain tumor scars, with one present-day interviewee confessing that when she was younger she assumed that all of her neighbors contracting cancer was perfectly normal. And it’s here, 80 minutes into the film, that an actual sense of purpose emerges, as Nunez turns his focus to the efforts of St. George residents in the late ’80s to force the U.S. government to accept responsibility for the damage caused to those living downwind and receiving, if not an apology, then at least a kind of acknowledgment of inadvertent harm in the form of financial settlements. Using the national reckoning over Wayne’s death as a way of compelling the U.S. government to grapple with the cost imposed on its citizenry in fighting the Cold War, we hear from victims who share heartbreaking accounts of multiple tragedies, like one woman who lost both her sister and young daughter to cancer in the span of a few weeks (we also learn the U.S. government still denies the child’s sickness was related to the nuclear tests, only accepting responsibility for those who came into direct contact with radiation while refuting the medical abnormalities of their offspring).

Charitably, one could claim Nunez is drifting off the infamy of The Conqueror to draw attention to the plight of the still-suffering victims, even mirroring the delayed reparations by burying this material at the end of the nearly two-hour-long documentary. But that doesn’t forgive the ungainliness of the filmmaking, which tends to break its arguments out into dozens of brief chapters, each announced by onscreen quotes that curtail even the possibility of one scene flowing into the next. Nor does that make efforts to conflate Hughes’ mental illness, which found him watching The Conqueror on a perpetual loop while holed up in the penthouse of his Las Vegas casino (these sequences are conveyed by what look to be discarded storyboards from The Aviator), with his alleged regret over the production any less facile. Hughes was guilty of any number of transgressions, ranging from womanizing and paranoia to unseemly taste, but it should be reiterated that he had absolutely nothing to do with the United State’s nuclear program and was, in many respects, as much a victim of the government’s misinformation as anyone else. Presenting the reclusive billionaire as attempting to buy his absolution for the sin of shooting a lousy movie in the desert feels as distasteful as the film he produced.

DIRECTOR: William Nunez;  CAST: Patrick Wayne;  DISTRIBUTOR: Blue Fox Entertainment;  IN THEATERS: June 28;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 56 min.