Here’s why John Wayne agreed to star in The Conqueror, which is not only considered the worst film he made, but also one of the worst of all time. Following his movie star breakthrough with 1939’s Stagecoach, Wayne’s screen image would forever be closely linked to Westerns. Most of his biggest successes were in the genre, including Red River, The Searchers, True Grit and the unofficial Rio Bravo trilogy. Of course, with over 180 credits, he appeared in plenty of other genres too.
There were war movies like Sands Of Iwo Jima or dramas like The Quiet Man. Later in his career, he appeared to appear in more modern thrillers such as McQ and Brannigan but from his look to his speech cadence, he just fit the Western mold too well. While Wayne understood his screen persona and appeal all too well, he attempted to mix up his image occasionally. Unfortunately, in the case of sword-and-sandal epic 1956’s The Conqueror, accepting the title role was a mistake for so many reasons.
The movie cast Wayne – who only made one sequel – as Temüjin, the Mongol chief who would become known as Genghis Khan. He sparks a war by stealing Bortai (Susan Hayward), the daughter of the Tatars’ leader. This sparks war, but while Bortai is initially repelled by Temüja, they eventually fall in love. The Conqueror has an grand scale to it, but it’s a terrible movie across the board. The dialogue is clunky and unnatural, the performances are lackluster – to say nothing of the whitewashing involved – and it’s grossly inaccurate to actual history. There’s also the legendary miscasting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, who couldn’t be more wrong for the part if he tried – an assessment he later agreed with. It might be a surprise to some that making the movie was largely his idea.
John Wayne Loved The Conqueror’s Script
The Conqueror was a project developed by RKO Radio Pictures, who had produced classics like Citizen Kane and the original King Kong movie. Legend has it that Wayne – who was finishing up the last of a three-picture deal with RKO – met with director Dick Powell to discuss various projects. When Powell was called away Wayne found the screenplay for The Conqueror, which had been developed with Marlon Brando in mind. Wayne loved the script and saw it as a Western, and while Powell tried to convince him not to do it, he signed on for the epic.
RKO had been taken over by billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes in the late ’40s, but the studio fell into decline under his reign. The Conqueror was incredibly expensive for its era and despite a decent box-office performance, it essentially marked the end of the studio. Producer Howard Hughes also chose to film it in St. George, Utah, which was downwind of a U.S. Nuclear testing site that had previously exploded 11 nuclear weapons. In the years after production wrapped, 91 crew members from The Conqueror developed cancer, with Powell, Wayne and Hayward all eventually dying from the illness. Over 20% of the crew passed from cancer-related illnesses, with two of Wayne’s sons – who visited the production – later developing cancers also.
Hughes became so guilt-ridden over the production he paid an estimated $12 million to buy every available print of The Conqueror and is said to have rewatched it endlessly in his private residence. This made the film unavailable to the public until 1979 when Universal purchased it from Hughes’ estate. Wayne – who was nicknamed “Duke” – rarely spoke of the film following its release, though a quote attributed to him stated the lesson he learned was “Not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”