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.
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