The Conqueror is not a beloved film classic. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who likes it unironically. That’s including at least one of its stars. John Wayne hated the 1956 film and regrets ever taking the role.
Critics today would label the film “problematic.” Wayne plays Temujin, the birth name of the Mongolian warlord and leader Ghengis Khan. Temujin kidnaps the daughter of a powerful rival ruler and takes control of his empire. This sparks a war. But Wayne’s character attempts to win the heart of his prisoner and make her his bride.
It’s bad. And it was a box office flop, as well. Wayne later said that he should have realized he wasn’t right for the role. He reportedly would visibly shudder when people brought it up to him.
“People wouldn’t accept me as Genghis Khan,” he said. “I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won’t take anything else.”
Wayne originally jumped at the chance to play the part, but quickly realized it was a bad idea once filming began. He has said that the moral of The Conqueror was “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”
And that bears out. The movie has a 10 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and several books have named it as one of the worst films ever made. The Official Razzie Movie Guide, however, says it one of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.” So, there’s that.
The movie’s flop seriously harmed the film studio RKO’s bottom line. The company stopped making movies a year later and was closed by 1959.
‘The Conqueror’ Was Hidden From Public For Two Decades
Quality aside, The Conqueror allegedly turned out to be deadly. Adding literal injury to insult, the movie was filmed about 130 miles downwind from a nuclear testing site in Utah. People magazine determined that in 1980, 91 of The Conqueror’s 220 cast and crew had contracted cancer. Forty-six had died of it.
Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, told the magazine that would “qualify as an epidemic.”
“The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.”
John Wayne died of lung cancer in 1979, but he was a heavy smoker. However, the movie’s other two leads, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorhead, also died of cancer in the 1970s, as did several other actors in the film. Doctors diagnosed two of John Wayne’s children who visited the set with cancer. They both survived, People reported. The director also died of cancer in 1963.
The film’s producer, Howard Hughes, was so haunted by the film, that he bought back every print of it at a cost of $12 million. That is twice the budget of the movie. In his final years, as Hughes became a recluse and more paranoid, he would reportedly watch The Conqueror nearly every night, but make the projectionist wear a blindfold to avoid having to see it, Yahoo said.
Universal purchased the film rights in 1979, three years after Hughes’ death, and broadcast it on television. It was the first public showing in 21 years.