The Conqueror brought together Oscar winners John Wayne and Susan Hayward to tell the epic tale of Genghis Khan and the woman he loved. Sounds like a solid movie, but instead this 1956 film is jam-packed with horrible racism, not to mention the fact almost half the cast and crew contracted cancer and many of them died. Instead of being the next blockbuster, The Conqueror became known as the movie John Wayne got cancer from.
Turns out, the filming location of The Conqueror was close to a spot used to test atomic bombs for over ten years, similar to the fake towns created to test nuclear weapons. However, the fact that a bunch of people died making it doesn't absolve the film from being downright awful. A poorly written script and Wayne playing himself with a Fu Manchu mustache doomed this film long before The Conqueror cancer deaths. Horrible stereotypes and racism – such as yellowface in The Conqueror – also makes this cursed film a predecessor for the whitewashing seen in movies today.
Like other bad things omitted from biopics, perhaps instead of his five-pack-a-day smoking habit, what caused John Wayne's death was actually this movie.
No one knew how dangerous their situation had been until years later when many people involved were diagnosed with cancer. Less than seven years after the film's premiere, director Dick Powell had died. Pedro Armendáriz committed suicide in 1963 when told he had terminal cancer, and both Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward passed away in the '70s after succumbing to the disease. Not even tough guy John Wayne could escape, as the star was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and stomach cancer in 1979, which eventually killed him. It's been disputed that his five-pack-a-day cigarette habit was to blame, but considering how many other cast members, crew, and residents of nearby towns contracted cancer, radioactivity shouldn't be ruled out.
In 1980, People published an article that crunched the numbers. Out of 220 cast and crew members, 91 had been diagnosed with cancer and 46 of those people had died. The press labeled the movie as "an RKO Radioactive Picture" and it's said producer Howard Hughes never got over his guilt. Although it was never completely proven that the radioactive dust did, in fact, end up killing so many people, one scientist at the Pentagon was quoted as saying, "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne."
The Conqueror was filmed in an area of Utah handpicked by producer Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, the spot was less than 140 miles from Yucca Flat, the area the Atomic Energy Commission used to test atomic bombs throughout most of the '50s. In 1953 alone, they set off 11 bombs, including the 32-kiloton "Dirty Harry." Besides being so close to the site, the filming location was also downwind, making the situation even worse.
Hughes asked the AEC about the safety of the area and was told they were in no danger. John Wayne and others on set were given a Geiger counter which they played around with, laughing even though it was sounding all kinds of alarms. In fact, local residents believed the bombs were so safe, they would travel into the desert to watch the explosions as a form of entertainment, ignoring the toxic ash falling on their heads.
According to Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando was originally cast in the role of Genghis Khan. It was a few years after On The Waterfront, and he was as popular as ever. However, John Wayne was at the height of his popularity as well. He happened to be in director Dick Powell's office when he noticed the script for The Conqueror allegedly in a garbage can, read it, and demanded the part.
Although Powell tried to talk him out of it (reminding him he had just pulled the script out of the trash), Wayne would not back down despite the fact he was one of the least Asian-looking actors ever. The film was a commercial failure and Wayne as Khan was dubbed one of the worst casting decisions ever made. Wayne later realized how big a mistake he had made, commenting he learned "not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for."
John Wayne wasn't the only actor who unsuccessfully tried to pass for Asian. Redhead Susan Hayward was cast as Genghis Khan's love interest. Although, it is possible Hayward only landed the role thanks to her affair with Howard Hughes at the time. Khan's mother was played by Agnes Moorehead who was also white, and by casting Pedro Armendariz as Khan's friend, filmmakers tried to pass off Mexican as Mongol.
Groups of Navajo Native Americans were also employed to play Khan's hordes of Mongols, and none of them were given makeup to hide their ethnicity. There are actually only two real Asian actors in the film, but they don't show up until the movie is half over. Only one of them has any dialog, and the actor who does speak asks Khan how he enjoyed his meal. Totally worth it.