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The Conqueror (1956) Poster

(1956)

Trivia

The film is sometimes called "An RKO Radioactive Picture." It was filmed near a nuclear test site, and the set was contaminated by nuclear fallout. Photographs exist of John Wayne holding a Geiger counter. After location shooting, contaminated soil was transported back to Hollywood in order to match interior shooting done there. Over the next 20 years, many actors and crew members developed cancer. People Magazine researched the cast and crew's health for an article. By the time it was published, in November 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members had developed cancer. Forty-six had died, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz (who shot himself soon after learning he had terminal cancer), Agnes Moorehead, John Hoyt and director Dick Powell. The count did not include several hundred local Native Americans who played extras, or relatives of the cast and crew who visited the set, including John Wayne's son Michael Wayne. The article quoted the reaction of a scientist from the Pentagon's Defense Nuclear Agency to the news, "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne". As of June 2011, the People article is available in their archive online.
Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes backed the film financially. He later paid an extra $12 million (estimated) for every existing copy because of guilt; he paid to ship 60 tons of contaminated soil to Hollywood for retakes. He kept a tight hold on the film, not even allowing it to be shown on television, for years. Universal bought the rights to the film in 1979, and according to the Hollywood Reporter, it had not been seen by the public for 21 years prior to the purchase (allegedly, Paramount obtained reissue rights in 1974).
John Wayne took his role very seriously, went on a crash diet, and took Dexedrine tablets 4 times a day.
John Wayne regretted playing Temujin so much that he visibly shuddered whenever anyone mentioned the film's name. He once remarked that the moral of the film was "not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for."
According to "The Hollywood Hall of Shame," the screenplay was written with Marlon Brando in mind for the lead. John Wayne was about to make the last film of a three-picture deal for RKO Radio, and Dick Powell had been assigned to direct. They were going over various scripts in Powell's office when Powell was called away for a few minutes. When he returned, he found Wayne enthusiastically looking over the screenplay for "The Conqueror", which Powell had intended to throw away. Powell tried to talk him out of it, but Wayne insisted that it was the film he wanted to make. As Powell later said, "Who am I to turn down John Wayne?"
The box office failure of this movie was believed to be ultimately responsible for the demise of RKO Pictures studios.
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Many of the Mongol extras were played by local Navajo Indians. They did not wear any makeup.
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Howard Hughes' final motion picture project, ending his 30-year involvement with the film industry. Jet Pilot (1957), a film he produced in 1949, was not released until 1957.
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Listed among The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made in "The Official Razzie® Movie Guide" by John Wilson.
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The character Wang Khan, played by Thomas Gomez, is also known in history books as Ong Khan, Togrul, Toghrul, or Toghril. He was a member of the little-known Nestorian Christian sect, and European missionaries often referred to him in their reports as Prester John, a popular name for a hypothetical ideal Christian king.
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Included in "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way)" by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell.
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The movie was filmed not long after the Atomic Bomb test in the Yucca Flats area where 11 Atomic Bombs were tested, the cast and crew got radiation from that test, and many of the crew, actors ended up with cancer from that filming location in Utah. Cecil, I quote here tells more of the story. "The movie was shot in the canyonlands around the Utah town of St. George. Filming was chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, a black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out everybody. But the worst didn't become apparent until long afterward. In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which resulted in immense clouds of fallout floating downwind. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a lot of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of hot dirt back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes, thus making things even worse.

Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there's a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble. Actor Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after the movie was completed, and later shot himself when he learned his condition was terminal.

Howard Hughes was said to have felt "guilty as hell" about the whole affair, Although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years."
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Filmed between mid-May and August 5, 1954. It premiered in Los Angeles on February 22, 1956, then opened in Manhattan at the Criterion Theatre on March 30, 1956.
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Average Shot: 8.2 seconds. Median Shot: 7.5 seconds.
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