This failed blockbuster killed old Hollywood and maybe John Wayne, too

History News Network



John Wayne portraying Genghis Khan is truly an odd idea.
The legendary western star approached the role of the Mongol leader as if he was playing a gunfighter—one with yellowface makeup, slanted eyes, Fu Manchu mustache, and eye-popping costumes to amplify the actor’s physique.

Yet, this head-scratching casting choice is merely a jumping-off point for the strange, monumentally disastrous, and even deadly story of The Conqueror, the 1956 epic movie made by RKO Studios and produced by billionaire mogul playboy Howard Hughes. The plethora of problems only began with the casting.


The movie fared well at the box office but struggled to earn enough to recoup its behemoth budget. Legend and rumors and politics would swirl like polluted sand in a windstorm for decades to come, but what The Conqueror did more than anything else was destroy Old Hollywood.

The Golden Age came to a climactic close in the 1950s, and if one particular movie can be blamed for ending it all, it’s this one. Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror, examines this unbelievable story like never before.

Fittingly, The Conqueror is associated with another great fear of the 1950s—nuclear fallout.


The epic Asian-set blockbuster was filmed in Snow Canyon, Utah – some miles downwind of the Nevada Proving Grounds, where atomic tests had been actively underway just one year before the film shoot. Nuclear fallout from a bomb test in 1953 was swept toward the community of St. George and contaminated much of the surrounding area. John Wayne would die from cancer nearly two decades later, along with director Dick Powell, co-star Susan Hayward, actors Pedro Armendariz and Agnes Moorehead, along with countless extras and crew members.



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Ryan Uytdewilligen is a broadcast journalist, author, and film historian based in Vancouver. His book Killing John Wayne: The Making of "The Conqueror" has recently been published by Rowman and Littlefield.


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John Bellamy Comments I have seen this film and remember thinking what utter crap it was and how awful John Wayne was in it - completely miscast - but then - I always thought John Wayne to be the stiffest, hollowest and most boring ( actually dreadful ) actor there ever was and his various parts played were always the same kind of acting - pretty much no acting at all as he just went through the paces and said the words but there was absolutely no acting skill involved, he was just always the same in every part he ever played.

No personality at all. No getting into the role. No understanding the person he was playing. No empathy for the storyline. Just words spoken and actions taken.

To learn that while making a movie almost everyone on the set died of cancer some years later and how nuclear testing in the USA was responsible, is truly tragic for anyone, even a B Actor.

Mind you, he did get the John Wayne Airport named after him in Orange County, California and I did fly from there just the once.

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Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout

The US turned swathes of desert radioactive during the cold war and denied it, bequeathing a medical mystery that still haunts Hollywood and rural Mormon communities and raises the question: how much do you trust the government?


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