The Conqueror

By Dylan Brown (originally published March 9, 2015)

At the Appalachian on Saturday, March 9, 1957: The Conqueror (directed by Dick Powell, US, 1956, 111 minutes).

Dick Powell—himself a well-known classical Hollywood actor—transitioned behind the camera during the 1940s and 1950s, and collaborated with John Wayne for the first time on the set of The Conqueror. The film follows the trials and loves of the notorious Genghis Khan (Wayne). The film is shrouded in controversy because the set location was close to a nuclear testing site, a location that exposed the cast and crew to radiation and gave cancer to many of them in the years to come. In addition to this tragedy, the movie was a commercial flop, often associated with the downfall of Wayne’s career.

The Conqueror moves at a slow pace and builds at the same pace, only to crescendo in two separate raids and a final battle sequence that ends all too quickly. Interestingly enough, this movie about Asian history features no Asian actors or actresses. All the performers lack authenticity, even John Wayne. This is most apparent in his iconic speech patterns and long vocal pauses, which work well in cowboy films, but not so well as Genghis Khan. Strangely enough, Wayne pined for this role and continually pressed Powell to be cast after being told numerous times that the role was not a good fit. Eventually, Powell capitulated, saying, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”

Acting and casting choices aside, the aesthetics of the film are superb. The sets are elaborate and detailed, the costumes are elegant, and the background music is both fitting and eloquent. The attention to detail can be attributed to the film’s producer, Howard Hughes.

Howard Hughes was a rich and famous business investor and filmmaker, producing movies like Scarface (1932) and Vendetta (1950). In the medical fallout following the release of The Conqueror, Hughes felt a big responsibility for the cast and crew’s well-being, and bought up all the copies and prints of The Conqueror in circulation in an attempt to bury the film and erase its existence. Hughes also refused to let the film be re-released to the general public until the middle of the 1970s. It is rumored that The Conqueror left a mental scar on Hughes, resulting in him watching the film every evening to remind himself of the horrible things he had done and the lives he had destroyed.

For more information about The Conqueror:

Caggiano, Greg. “The Conqueror (1956): The Film that Killed John Wayne…Literally.”

Old Radio Shows, “Atomic Consequences of The Conqueror: Howard Hughes’ Big Budget Film Flop.”