The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout tells two different stories that are inextricably tied together. One is about a notoriously bad, star-studded Hollywood epic; the other is about how a shockingly large percentage of the people who made that epic died of cancer. The documentary is a bit slow to get going, but once it does, it tells both stories in a gripping manner that leaves you horrified.

The epic in question is 1956’s The Conqueror, a Howard Hughes production that improbably cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorhead co-starred. Early sections of the doc detail the troubled making of the picture, including Wayne’s apparent realization that he was completely wrong for the role, leading him to drink his way through it. Backstage affairs, poor casting choices, and animal endangerment all factor in. It’s a good exploration of the many elements that conspired to create a classic turkey.

Exteriors for the movie were shot in the desert outside St. George, Utah – the site of multiple nuclear weapons tests. Cast and crew were covered with dust and dirt from that site on a daily basis. For interior shots, the production trucked tons of the dirt to an RKO soundstage, where everybody continued to work around it. Nearly half of the people involved in the making of The Conqueror - including Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead, and director Dick Powell – died of cancer.

Coincidence? Hollywood Fallout thinks not. Through interviews with a variety of subjects including authors, experts, and longtime St. George residents, the film details how the public was fed misinformation about the danger nuclear testing presented to them. Director William Nunez makes the strong case that those involved with the The Conqueror were essentially sitting ducks. Lacking the proper knowledge, they took jobs that would be directly responsible for their deaths. In viewing the documentary, we’re forced to wonder what health hazards may exist now that are being hidden from us.

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout is a unique experience. Part of it is great fun, the other part tragic and sad. After seeing it, there’s no way you could ever catch that old John Wayne movie and chuckle over his horrendous miscasting, the stilted dialogue, or the melodramatic tone. It has become an unintended memorial for dozens of people who perished as a result of its sheer existence. This haunting documentary captures an important intersection of cinema history and the unintended perils of America ingenuity.

out of four

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout is unrated but contains disturbing subject matter. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan