Author Interview: Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen

In the world of showbiz, it’s impossible for a performer to have completely perfect films on their resume. You think of any one of your favorites and there is bound to be an embarrassment of a flop.

Some definitely had more than others, and not even a cinema legend like John Wayne got away with not having a flop. In 1956, not only did a flop land on his filmography, but it would turn out to be one of the worst films of all time: The Conqueror.
Directed by Dick Powell for RKO Studios and starring Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz, and John Wayne as Genghis Khan, the film was notorious for being awful at the time of release. In the years to come it gained a reputation for being both a disaster to watch and literally deadly to make; for it was filmed at nuclear test sites in Utah, resulting in a majority of the cast a crew dying from cancer.

65 years after the film’s release Canadian author Ryan Uytdewilligen has written a book: Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror. Mr Uytdewilligen has spent the last three years researching the subject, and was generous to let me ask him some questions! The book is available now from Rowman and Littlefield publishing, and can be purchased at places such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble.

Killing John Wayne: The Making of the Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen

Below you find the email interview, which Ryan was so cool to take part in!

1-What personally interested you into writing a book about one of the worst films ever made?
The film’s history and place in the pantheon of worst films was told to me a few years back. It always stuck with me, particularly the crazy miscasting aspect I dug deeper and deeper over the years and found out that this movie had so many layers of destruction to it that It became so wild and unbelievable, I simply had to know more.

2-John Wayne usually lobbied hard for roles he truly wanted. How did John Wayne come to land the lead originally meant for Marlon Brando?
From what I could find, John Wayne wanted to try and shake up his image. He also signed a contract with Howard Hughes, promising he would do three films with RKO. He did the first two right away, but the third film took years to set up. He was desperate to take anything. The rumor is that after Brando turned down the script, it was thrown in the trash. Wayne apparently pulled it out of the trash bin, flipped through it, and said that should be the next film.

3- I have read on IMDB The Conqueror wiped out RKO Pictures; In a world of crumbling studio systems, was The Conqueror viewed as a warning to other studios that they could be one bad film away from financial ruin?
It’s kind of a misnomer because RKO was in financial decline for years. Howard Hughes took it over in 1948 and ran it into the ground with terrible, expensive choices. When he sold it in 1955, all the studio had left was The Conqueror. They released it but failed to break even.

4-1956 also saw the release of one of the best movies ever made, The Searchers, which also starred John Wayne. How did The Conqueror not hurt John Wayne’s overall popularity?

Wayne said later on that he regretted taking the role and that he wasn’t suited for it. Critics were hard on it, but he followed it up with The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and a couple other hits, so it really fell by the wayside. In those days, most actors did two or three movies each year.

5- I personally have read in other books, John Wayne himself wasn’t happy during production. Was anyone on set glad to be making the film, or was it a pretty miserable shoot for all?
It was a miserable shoot all around. Susan Hayward was drinking and trying to allegedly have an affair with John Wayne. Second-time director Dick Powell was so in over his head, he wasn’t sleeping. Harsh weather conditions in Utah were harming the cast and crew. It was rough all around.

6-The Conqueror was a flop at the time of release and is still considered a flop today, for even someone like myself who hasn’t seen anything but trailer can agree on this. What would you cite as the reasons why the film has maintained it’s awful reputation?
It’s awful in many ways, but the miscast of John Wayne as Ghengis Khan is so startling, it’s hard to comprehend. But the performances are all very hammy, the story is lacklustre, and one-quarter of the movie is very sexist dance numbers that have nothing to do with the story. I will say, the production value is better than most things made today.

7-Branching off the previous question, The Conqueror has rarely aired on tv and is difficult to find on dvd and streaming platforms, why should movie fans still watch this flop of a film, even if it’s only to say, “I’ve seen it once”!
If you are a John Wayne fan, you can’t claim fandom unless you’ve seen this one. It also has so much lore around it, that it’s simply one of those bucket list watches that will not disappoint. 

8-The Conqueror is not only known for its content, but also for its filming location at nuclear test sites in Utah; was anyone aware at the time of filming how dangerous the location was?
The location scouts did bring this to attention to the producers who deemed it safe. The cast and crew got worried when they arrived and heard this from the locals, but ultimately, Howard Hughes called up the Atomic Energy Commission and was assured there would be no problems. Any link or danger from radiation was not known for at least a decade after. 

9-Unfortunately for most of the cast and crew, many people, including John Wayne himself (and his son Michael, a producer on the film), died from cancer due to the radiation present at the filming site; When did this link of cancer and location become apparent?
Dick Powell, the director, died from cancer in 1961, while co-star Pedro Armendariz died shortly after that from suicide after learning his cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that cast and crewmembers began dropping like flies. Wayne beat cancer in the mid-1960s, but ultimately succumbed to it in 1979. It was in that moment downwinders who were fighting for government aid finally brought their case to the US Senate. A journalist happened to see a connection between the filming location, the downwinder plight, and John Wayne’s death that year. He published an article that inspired many similar stories ever since. 

10- Last question: What overall lessons can be learned from The Conqueror and how can biopics today strive not to make the same mistakes?
This movie was made with no intent to get facts rights. The screenwriter even said he did no research and didn’t know who Ghengis Khan was before he took a meeting with Hughes. It was made for money and entertainment with no regard for authenticity. The production was very rushed too. So it was made with no care. I think a few Khan biopics have been made since. They were more cautious and careful, however, this film, The Conqueror, lives on because of how bad it is.

Bonus question: What are your favourite John Wayne films? 

I tend to gravitate to his stuff in the later 1950s and early 1960s, particularly Rio Bravo (his best and most entertaining western) and the riveting The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Again, Killing John Wayne: The Making of the Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen is available online: Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thanks so much to Ryan for answering the Questions and I’m very excited to read the book!!!You can learn more about Ryan by visiting his website HERE

5 thoughts on “Author Interview: Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror by Ryan Uytdewilligen

  1. Walter

    Flapper Dame, thank you and writer Ryan Uytdewilligen for this good interview. Also, for bringing to my attention the book KILLING JOHN WAYNE: THE MAKING OF THE CONQUEROR(2021). I hope Mr. Uytdewilligen will set the record straight on this movie and give it a fair shake. A lot of misinformation has been written about THE CONQUEROR(filmed 1954, released 1956) and many writers have just passed on the same wrong information without doing any new research.

    I first saw THE CONQUEROR in 1986 on cable tv, by way of independent station WGN Channel 9 Chicago, Illinois. It is a bizarre movie because of the miscasting and some of the scripted dialogue will leave you shaking your head. Although, I don’t think it is one of the worst movies ever made. The movie does have some things going for it. The striking location scenery captured in widescreen CinemaScope, beautiful technicolor, elaborate costumes, skillfully coordinated battle scenes, and music by Victor Young. It is a solid artfully assembled movie with some nice touches along the way. The movie moves along well and it isn’t boring.

    THE CONQUEROR isn’t an unheralded classic by no means, but I think John Wayne fans should give it a go to see what all the fuss is about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Walter

    Flapper Dame, thank you for replying. WGN Channel 9 Chicago was licensed to air THE CONQUEROR from 1986-91. Next the movie aired on the USA Network from 1992-97. ENCORE aired the movie 1998-99. Turner Network Television(TNT) and Turner Classic Movies(TCM) showed it during 1999-2000. American Movie Classics(AMC) aired the movie during 2003-04. It was back on TCM in 2015 and was last shown on TCM Monday evening February 1, 2021.

    The movie wasn’t a commercial flop, because it did more than just break even. It made a lot money. It was number 11 at the domestic box office in 1956 and went on to make $12 Million. The movie played in movie theaters from 1956-62, so Howard Hughes didn’t pull it from theaters in 1956, or 1957. He had sold RKO Pictures to General Tire in 1955 and it was later that he bought the rights back to the movie. Paramount Pictures distributed Hughes’ THE CONQUEROR and JET PILOT(filmed 1949-51, released 1957) as a double feature in movie theaters in 1974. The double feature played throughout Texas that year. After Hughes’ death in 1976 the two movies were bought by Universal Pictures, along with six other Hughes movies. THE CONQUEROR played on the movie channels SHOWTIME in 1980 and CINEMAX in 1982. It was playing in European theaters in 1983 and also was released in the USA on both Beta and VHS video by MCA Home Video the same year. In 1984 the movie was shown on THE MOVIE CHANNEL. It started playing on local tv stations in Utah in 1985.

    THE CONQUEROR was again released on vhs video in 1992 by MCA/Universal Home Video. GoodTimes Home Video released it on vhs in 2000 and on dvd in 2001. In 2006 Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released John Wayne : An American Icon Collection, which is the one that I have and viewed the movie for the second time. In 2014 it was again released as one of the Vault Universal Series burn-to-order dvd’s. Koch Video of Germany released it on Blu-ray and dvd in 2015.

    A lot of people have had the opportunity to view THE CONQUEROR over the years. It is most definitely a curio.

    I’m enjoying what you are giving us through your good write-ups. Keep on viewing movies and writing about them. You are a hope for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had this saved for ages! 🙂 You published it before we became blogging friends, but it caught my eye when I was reading another of your posts. I saved it for later, then it sorta got buried. :/ I’m sorry it took me this long to get to it – but I’m so glad I read it today! 😀

    This was absolutely fascinating. First, it’s so impressive that you made a connection with this author and got to conduct this interview. Second, I knew John Wayne died of cancer – but I was not aware of this backstory, or of The Conqueror’s existence, AT ALL. 😮 Like I said, fascinating. 😀

    I’m not familiar with Ryan Uytdewilligen, but I certainly concur with his favorite John Wayne films. 🙂 They’re my favorites of his, too!

    PS – I see you posted something new today. I’m looking forward to reading it – which I will do soon. I won’t wait ages like I did with this one, I promise! 😉


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