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The Conqueror: The Tragic Story Behind One Of The World's Worst Movies

Hollywood’s classic cinema has left many masterpieces, and some of those movies have become culturally significant. Some of these classics have become essential for cinema lovers, like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or the all-time classic Casablanca. The examples are infinite, and these movies are remembered as some of the best movies of all time.

However, there are other films that are also quite remembered, but not for being the best but the worst. And that is the case of The Conqueror, a movie released in 1956 that had the potential to be great but ended up becoming a big failure. Not only it is considered as one of the worst movies of all time, but it’s also very popular for being a movie that brought disgrace to its cast and creators.

The Conqueror is an epic, historical and dramatic film. It was directed by Dick Powell, produced by Howard Hughes and featured two of Hollywood’s greatest stars: John Wayne and Susan Hayward. The story follows a Mongol chief called Temujin, who after falling in love with the daughter of a Tatar leader, decides to kidnap her, unleashing a war. The woman, known as Bortai, ends up falling in love with Temujin, and after he is kidnapped, he starts suspecting that a fellow Mongol has betrayed him, leading them to investigate what happened.

The movie had many elements that could have made it a hit. In fact, John Wayne, who was in the best moment of his career, was so invested in the script that he joined the film with no hesitation. Despite of earning good box-office numbers, the movie received negative reviews, with most critics condemning the storyline and script. But that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst was yet to come.

It is believed that The Conqueror led its actors and crew to their deaths, and It all had to do with the location in which the film was shot. Mostly set in a desertic landscape, production of the film took place in different regions of Utah, being one of them St. George, which was about 220km near the Nevada National Security Site, also known as the Nevada Test Site (NTS). 

In 1953, the NTS was part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, which consisted of testing around eleven nuclear weapons. At that time, the consequences of nuclear weapons hadn’t been studied, even less the radiation levels that resulted because of the testing. It wasn’t until the Chernobyl disaster that scientists began paying attention to this issue.

So when production of The Conqueror began, the crew, actors and extras, stayed for around three months in the area. People were aware of the nuclear testing, but the government assured them that it was harmless and their health wouldn’t be compromised. 

During filming everything seemed fine, but it wasn’t until years after the release of the movie, that the people involved started facing the consequences. 

Out of 220 crew members of the film, around 90 developed cancer, with more than half of that number dying from it. Although it was a common thing for US citizens to develop that illness at that time, many people believe that it was the exposure to radiation that led them to develop cancer, as the coincidence was too much.

In 1962, Dick Powell developed cancer, and one year later he died. In 1963, Pedro Armendáriz, one of the film’s main stars, committed suicide after learning that he had cancer. Both protagonists, Susan Hayward and John Wayne died from cancer too, Hayward of brain cancer in 1975, and Wayne from stomach cancer three years later. This may seem like a coincidence, but not only the actors who took part in the film died from the disease, but also their relatives, who happened to visit them during filming. Two more actors of the film died from cancer in the late 80s and early 90s

At this point, it’s not crazy to say that the movie, more likely the location, was cursed. In fact, Howard Hughes was so guilty about it, that he tried by all means to get rid of the film. He bought all copies available to prevent its circulation. It is said that the director became obsessed with it and watched it many times during his final years. The movie was only recovered after Hughes’ death in 1976 when Universal Pictures bought the rights to his estate in 1979.

The curious case of The Conqueror’s production has been studied by many scientists and doctors around the world, many of them confirming that it’s very likely that exposure to radiation led all those people to develop cancer in their lives. Some even called it an epidemic, since almost half of the ‘population’ of the production developed the illness. Now, The Conqueror is remembered, not for being a classic, but for bringing disgrace to Hollywood.

Photo credit: RKO Pictures

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