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This Failed Blockbuster Killed Old Hollywood (and Maybe John Wayne, Too)

John Wayne portraying Genghis Khan is truly an odd idea. The legendary western star approached the role of the Mongol leader as if he was playing a gunfighter—one with yellowface makeup, slanted eyes, Fu Manchu mustache, and eye-popping costumes to amplify the actor’s physique. Yet, this head-scratching casting choice is merely a jumping-off point for the strange, monumentally disastrous, and even deadly story of The Conqueror, the 1956 epic movie made by RKO Studios and produced by billionaire mogul playboy Howard Hughes. The plethora of problems only began with the casting.

The movie fared well at the box office but struggled to earn enough to recoup its behemoth budget. Legend and rumors and politics would swirl like polluted sand in a windstorm for decades to come, but what The Conqueror did more than anything else was destroy Old Hollywood. The Golden Age came to a climactic close in the 1950s, and if one particular movie can be blamed for ending it all, it’s this one. Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror, examines this unbelievable story like never before.

Fittingly, The Conqueror is associated with another great fear of the 1950s—nuclear fallout. The epic Asian-set blockbuster was filmed in Snow Canyon, Utah – some miles downwind of the Nevada Proving Grounds, where atomic tests had been actively underway just one year before the film shoot. Nuclear fallout from a bomb test in 1953 was swept toward the community of St. George and contaminated much of the surrounding area. John Wayne would die from cancer nearly two decades later, along with director Dick Powell, co-star Susan Hayward, actors Pedro Armendariz and Agnes Moorehead, along with countless extras and crew members.

The effects of fallout on the cast and crew of The Conqueror can probably not be definitively known. True, Wayne and his colleagues were heavy smokers, but, as a lengthy Congressional battle to aid sick and surviving family members of the St. George area shows, the harms caused by fallout from nuclear testing were real, and seeking justice is a very real and ongoing source of pain and frustration. There will likely be no conclusion for The Conqueror cast and crew on this matter, though rumors shall always persist.

What is known is that occasional movie-maker Howard Hughes swooped in to purchase the controlling interest of RKO in 1948. The iconic studio behind classics such as King Kong, Citizen Kane, and It’s a Wonderful Life had found itself on shaky ground. Hughes, who had attempted to make a go at other production companies in the past, saw this as an opportunity to make personal projects and partake in his favorite pastime – preying upon desperate young starlets. Very quickly, the studio became grounds for communist witch hunts, critically panned projects, and predatory behavior. Hughes even sold the company to the mafia for a short amount of time before buying it back. Forced into a corner, the only move the aviator could make was to try to produce a hit. So, he gave the green light to a magnum opus idea: a sprawling story about Genghis Khan.

Cinema was then in the midst of the biggest fight for its life; the revolutionary convenience of television had given the big screen a run for its money. Hollywood pulled out all the stops to lure people back into the theatre. Films got bigger, brighter, and more expensive in the 1950s. Biblical epics, in particular, were designed to be so grand in scale that people had no choice but to flock to theatres and witness their enormity. And for a time, with films like The Robe and The Ten Commandments dominating the box office, cinema pulled ahead in that race.  

Hughes sought to copy this formula, sticking in a star to attract fans and placing him in an eye-popping situation. Wayne actually had a three-picture deal with RKO, a contract method that left little choice for actors when it came to what parts they could play during the days of the studio system. Wayne had filmed the forgotten films Jet Pilot and Flying Leathernecks for Hughes, and wanted to polish off his contract by any means necessary – therefore, the unsuitable role of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror was born. Filming in a desert location, overbearing heat, flash floods, and disagreements plagued the shoot.

Once the film was completed, Hughes sold the movie and his interest in RKO – leaving new owners to deal with the financial turmoil. When The Conqueror failed to make bank, assets were sold piece by piece until the once-mighty studio was no more. RKO was the first of the original “Big Five” studios to shutter, while its Mongol epic was one of the first big biblical epics to flounder. Audiences had grown tired of a saturated market, avoiding what had become dime-a-dozen blockbusters for more intimate human stories that became a defining staple of 1960s cinema and ushered in the trends and styles of New Hollywood. Behemoth blockbusters like Cleopatra became far too risky to bankroll – meaning old-fashioned star-driven entertainment via the studio system became a product of the past.

Today, audiences can clearly see a parallel in the divide between superhero movies based on Marvel and Disney franchises versus smaller creative pursuits—indie films and limited series, often watched on streaming services. The similarly saturated market is sure to collapse, just like the Golden Age did during the time of The Conqueror. What is unclear is how or if the motion picture industry has anything to strike back with.

The 1956 so-called biographical adventure film lives in infamy for many reasons. It’s a bad movie that cinephiles revel in for a good time, a relic filled with mistakes from bloated production methods to racially insensitive portrayals. One can spend eons picking apart such a disastrous motion picture. My book, Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror explores the making of the movie, the fall of RKO under Hughes, the history of American nuclear testing, and how all of these worlds intersected to create such a historic blunder. It’s a truly unbelievable story that illustrates every wrong with Old Hollywood and how history is bound to repeat itself – even 70 years later.