In ancient times, the Mongolian warlord Temujin (John Wayne) must do battle against the rival tribe that killed his father.
The battles pale in comparison with Temujin’s home life, as he attempts to woo the heart of the red-haired Tartar prisoner, Bortai (Susan Hayward) who he captured in a raid. He must also deal with various intrigues within his palace.
Eventually, Bortai falls to his manly charms, Temujin defeats his enemies and is crowned Genghis Khan.
The casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan (pictured at left) is generally considered one of the worst casting decisions of all time, and John Wayne admitted afterwards that it was a mistake making The Conqueror. Tragically, it was a mistake that may have cost him his life.
He was worried about being miscast as Ghengis Khan, but he should have been more worried about the risk of contamination during filming, which could have caused the cancer from which he died.
In 1953, a huge radiation cloud from an open-air atomic bomb test was blown over the town of St George in Utah. A year later, Wayne, Susan Hayward, director Dick Powell and a cast and crew of thousands arrived in St George for location work for The Conqueror.
Tons of radioactive Utah soil was also shipped back to Hollywood for studio scenes.
Wayne, Hayward and Powell – and many others involved in the making of the film – died years later from cancer-related illnesses. By November 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members had developed cancer and 46 had died, including Pedro Armendáriz (who shot himself soon after learning he had terminal cancer), Agnes Moorehead, John Hoyt and director Dick Powell. Lee Van Cleef had throat cancer but died of a heart attack.
Open-air nuclear tests were banned in 1962, but for the community of St George, John Wayne and the others involved in the making of the film, that may have been too late.
Ted de Corsia
Lee Van Cleef