The Conqueror (1956)
December 12, 2022 7:19 AM - Subscribe

[TRAILER] Genghis Khan (John Wayne... no, seriously, they did that) and his 12th-century Mongol horde abduct the daughter (Susan Hayward) of a wicked Tartar.

Also starring Pedro Armendáriz, Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, John Hoyt, William Conrad, Ted de Corsia, Leslie Bradley, Lee Van Cleef. No one of Asian descent seems to have been involved in this film in any capacity. Native Americans from the Paiute nation were cast as extras.

The second feature film directed by Dick Powell (best known for playing Phillip Marlowe). Screenplay by Oscar Millard.

Not rated on RT, but commonly cited as one of the worst films ever made.

Not currently streaming, but that is okay, as no one should watch this.

Today, I'm going to post six movies that are problematic and/or made by/starring problematic people, but also either: have merit/are acclaimed; won some awards; are very popular; have a certain amount of cultural cachet. I'll be tagging these #problematicmovies.

This movie, in addition to being arguably the single worst offender ever in terms of whitewashing casting, also has the reputation of quite possibly having killed much of its cast and crew.

Of the 220 film crew members, 91 (comprising 41% of the crew) developed cancer during their lifetime, while 46 (or 21%) died from it. When this was learned, many suspected that filming in Utah and surrounding locations, near nuclear test sites, was to blame. Although the number of cancer cases among the cast and crew is in line with the average for adults in the US at the time, the perception of a link between the film's location and subsequent illness remains, not least because many of those involved in the film developed cancer at a younger age than average.

The exterior scenes were shot in the Escalante Desert near St. George, Utah, which is 137 miles downwind of the United States government's Nevada National Security Site and received the brunt of nuclear fallout from testing active in this period. In 1953, 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests occurred at the site as part of Operation Upshot–Knothole. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks at the site, and producer Howard Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain and lend realism to studio re-shoots. The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests but the federal government had assured residents that the tests posed no hazard to the public health.

Dr. Robert Pendleton, then a professor of biology at the University of Utah, is reported to have stated in 1980, "With these numbers, this case could 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 cancer cases, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law." (Primary source for much of this.)
posted by DirtyOldTown (5 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Titanic in Scope!
Titanic in Spectacle!
Titanic in Action!
Titanic in its suitability as a metaphor for hubris brought to disaster by the uncaring power of nature!

Seriously, dude, stop saying Titanic. That's not what you want to be invoking here. I mean if it were possible for a film (particularly one set in a desert) to strike an iceberg and sink halfway through its journey...
posted by Naberius at 8:05 AM on December 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Are we sure that the higher-than-average cancer rates might not be from radiation, but rather from karma?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:23 AM on December 12, 2022 [3 favorites]

Genghis Khan (John Wayne... no, seriously, they did that)

Also pale redhead Susan Hayward as a Tatar woman.

But which is worse, the dialog or the line readings? John Wayne reads his lines either like they're stage directions or he's reading them for the first time.

Temujin: I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her.
Bortai: For me, there is no peace while you live, Mongol.
Temujin: You're beautiful in your wrath.
Hunlun: My son has won the world. Still he must conquer that red-headed Jezebel.
Temujin: She is a woman - much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?
Temujin: See to the sharing of the booty.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:26 AM on December 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

I looked over my history with the #problematicmovies tag, and it looks like about half of them, I'm ready to mount some type of defense of as good, actually. This is not one of those. It's mostly interesting as an artifact of weird, bad decision making, on and off screen.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:31 AM on December 13, 2022

Didn't Hughes spend a lot of the last years of his life watching this over and over again? I have a vague memory of reading that somewhere.

Oh yeah, it was in an old column of The Straight Dope, which gives this transcription of a John Wayne line reading:
In the following sample, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai: “There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you–and there are moments fer action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!'” In the words of one writer, it was the world’s “most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:35 PM on December 14, 2022

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