Towards the end of his life, Howard Hughes – the billionaire tycoon, aviator and filmmaker – had become a recluse. Locked in the penthouse suite at his Xanadu Princess Resort hotel in the Bahamas, he refused to bathe, cut his nails or hair, use a toilet or even open the curtains. Instead, he would sit for hours in his darkened bedroom, naked except for a pink hotel napkin, eating nothing but chocolate bars and chicken, surrounded by dozens of Kleenex boxes that he continuously stacked and re-arranged.
But another ritual obsession would come dominate his final few months in 1976: two movies, played continually via a projector on the wall, that he watched over and over again. The first was his favourite film, Ice Station Zebra – Rock Hudson’s tense 1968 spy thriller set in the Arctic. Aides would later recount that Hughes watched it over 150 times.
The second, however, was different – a movie Hughes himself had financed, produced and now grown to utterly detest. Hughes spent millions buying up every print on the planet, just to ensure no-one else saw it. And even now, when viewing the film every night before going to bed, he would order his personal projectionist to wear a blindfold, so only he would see the screen.
The film was The Conqueror – the dramatic tale of Temujin, a 12th-century Mongol warlord, and his rise to power to become Genghis Khan. Released in 1956, it was intended to be Hughes’ cinematic masterpiece – a sweeping, rousing, old-school Hollywood historical epic, packed with windswept action and swooning passion. It would be shot in breathtaking panoramic CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor. It would star two Oscar-winning lead actors at the very apex of their careers. It would cost over $6 million – the equivalent of $52 million today.
And by absolutely every conceivable metric – financially, critically, historically, ethnically, and even body count – it would come to be known as one of the biggest disasters in cinematic history.
Flawed from the outset, it would become known as one of the most grossly miscast films of all time, too – largely, it turned out, due to a wastepaper bin. The script had originally been written for Marlon Brando, but the rising star of 1954’s On the Waterfront had passed, wisely citing contractual obligations elsewhere. Which left a problem for the major studios: who had the acting chops to successfully portray Genghis Khan, one of history’s most feared warmongers
Step forward, to everyone’s surprise, John Wayne. At the peak of his career – he would make The Searchers the same year – the Duke was due to fulfill the last film of a three-picture deal for RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes’ megalithic film company. He was duly summoned to the office of the assigned director, Dick Powell to go over various potential scripts, when Powell was called away.
On his return, Powell found Wayne had pulled the screenplay for The Conqueror out of the bin – Powell had already rejected it for “sounding absurd” – and was now enthusiastically reading out lines. Despite Powell’s pleading, the Duke was not to be swayed: a 12th century Mongolian warlord was the part he was born to play. And as Powell later recalled, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”
Luckily for Powell, this casting decision presented only two problems: how John Wayne looked, and how he sounded. The first issue was solved with what was deemed perfectly politically-correct at the time – the age-old Hollywood tradition practice of simulating Asian “looks” by applying a thick coat of yellowface, shaving his eyebrows off, and then adding fake eyelids and rubber bands glued to the top of the head with spirit gum, to pull the corners of the eyes into a “slant”. Wayne was also told to grow a Fu Manchu style moustache. There you go: unmistakably Mongolian.
His performance, however, would prove more problematic – especially when confronted with the script. Writer Oscar Millard had wanted an “archaic” flourish to the dialogue, resulting in lines such as: “She is a woman. Much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women.”
Such Shakespearean aspirations, however, were quickly annihilated by the Duke’s inimitable acting style. By the second scene, in fact, Wayne has given up on an Asian accent entirely, instead reverting to his famous cowboy swagger and halting drawl. And butchering such eloquent lines as: “Ya di’nt suckle me ta be slain by Tartars, my mo-ther.”
Wayne himself would tell Millard during filming: “You gotta do something about these lines – I can’t read ‘em.” But it was too late. What was intended a serious-minded epic had instantly become an unintentional comedy classic. As Millard later explained in a 1981 interview: “Mindful of the fact that my story was nothing more than a tarted-up western, I thought this would give it a certain cachet – and I left no lily unpainted. It was a mistake I have never repeated.”
And yet it was not the only mistake, by any means. Nor an isolated casting misstep. For example, the Tartar woman in question – Bortai, the bride whom Wayne’s Temujin steals away, thus precipitating war – would be played by Susan Hayward. A celebrated actress, to be sure; she would win the Best Actress Oscar two years later for 1958’s I Want to Live!. But with her red-permed hair, milky Irish-Swedish complexion and lipstick, hardly your archetypal Mongolian.
Then again, no-one else was either. The entire film boasts just two people of Asian descent, and only one has a line of dialogue. And every other actor involved, from cowboy luminaries like Lee Van Cleef and John Hoyt, to TV favourites like Pedro Armendáriz and Thomas Gomez were simply dunked in the same bucket of yellowface. Agnes Moorehead, the actress best known as Endora on Bewitched, is almost unrecognisable as Temujin’s mother. Although, as she was a mere seven years older than the man playing her son, this was by no means a bad thing. And one reviewer put it, “Not even a dental hygienist could find authentic Tartar in this movie.”
Not that it mattered anyway – by the time filming began in May 1954, any nod to authenticity had gone out of the yurt window. Continuing the cowboy theme, for example, Temujin is shown wearing bandolier straps in several scenes. What for, several observers noted – Mongolian bullets? Then there’s the almost entirely pointless “dancing scene” – seven long minutes of a “dusky Mongolian beauty” cavorting for Khan and his allies.
Except the beauty in question is dressed a red striped nylon bodystocking, with a pointy sequinned hat and fluffy feathers on her fingertips. Think: the erotic world of Dr Seuss. As another reviewer pointed out, dressing like that in 12th century Mongolia would more likely get you burned as a demon.
Nor did the location help. The nascent Cold War meant that filming on the actual grasslands of the Mongol Steppe was out of the question. But Dick Powell had instead chosen Utah’s Escalante Valley as a substitute – one of America’s most recognisable landscapes, and markedly different from the Gobi desert.
Native North Americans from nearby reservations were brought in to portray the battalions of horseback warriors, while Texas longhorn steers played the part of “oxen”. But Powell then further compounded the visual confusion by filming almost everything in exactly the same place, Snow Canyon. Resulting in several scenes where Temujin and his sidekick Jamuga ride some great distance and wearily dismount… almost exactly where they started.
By this point, however, the production was cantering headlong towards the abyss anyway. Delays in production meant much of the filming had to take place in the height of summer – in the punishing 120 degree heat of the desert. Several fights broke out on set. For Wayne, already confused by the dialogue, the heat was becoming unbearable: having decided to take the role “very seriously”, he’d embarked on a crash diet and was taking four tablets of high-strength amphetamine a day.
Inexorably, it all started getting a little surreal. A dancing bear suddenly appeared in a scene. Then a shirtless Lee Van Cleef, dancing a strange jig. At some point a distinctly non-indigenous black panther was shipped in to ‘liven up’ the background of one scene. Except that it then attacked Susan Hayward, attempting to take a bite out of her arm.
And then, in June, the location was hit with an unprecedented downpour – causing a flash flood that demolished several set buildings, stampeded more than a dozen horses and came within 20 seconds of wiping out the entire cast.
Such bad omens would prove all too portentous for the final film. By the time The Conqueror hit US cinemas on March 28, 1956, it had already suffered a Khan-esque slaughtering of its own at the hands of the critics. “It never Waynes but it bores,” wrote Moira Walsh in America Magazine, questioning how Genghis Khan – the brutal and cunning leader of the largest empire in world history – could have been portrayed as a lovelorn sap who can’t understand why the woman he just kidnapped doesn’t immediately fall for him. As the New York Times review concluded, “The facts appeared to have been lost in a Technicolored cloud of charging horsemen, childish dialogue and rudimentary romance.”
And not just romance. Even in the Fifties, several observers lamented the film’s numerous scenes of rape, where Temujin slaps, demeans and then forces himself on Bortai several times. “I stole you. I will keep you. Before the sun sets, you will come willingly into my arms!” he declares, smacking her around a little. Historical sources record that Temujin and Bortai were actually betrothed when he was nine and she was 10; in Powell’s version, however, Bortai merely acquiesces to Temujin’s abuse and eventually betrays her own people for his love.
Other reviewers wondered why Powell, for reasons passing understanding, had also crowbarred religious imagery into the final cut. In one of the movie’s more bizarre scenes, where Wayne climbs a hill and falls to his knees to offer a prayer: “Send me men!” he begs. Or the there’s the scene in which Temujin is captured by Tartars and paraded through the streets, strapped Christ-like to a block of wood.
Is the audience supposed to interpret one of history’s most bloodthirsty warriors as the new son of God? Perhaps: the LA Times called it “history’s most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in King of Kings.”
Either way, the film would prove a commercial disaster. Even piggybacking on Wayne’s other 1956 role – Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, seen by some as the single greatest performance in American cinema – failed to save The Conqueror, and it earned a paltry $4m in the US. Wayne himself made a personal plea to hold the premiere in Moscow, as a “peace gesture and cultural tribute” to the ancestors of the modern Russia. Such an event might have set back US-Soviet relations even further.
And yet the real repercussions of the film’s production would only emerge in the years to come. In 1953, the year before production started, the US Atomic Energy Commission had tested 11 nuclear weapons at Yucca Flats in Nevada – including two exceptionally “dirty” above ground tests with high degrees of fallout. After each detonation, huge clouds of radioactive dust were blown into the atmosphere before floating downwind and accumulating in the funnel of Snow Canyon, 220km to the west. Or more precisely, exactly where The Conqueror would be shot in 1954.
Despite this knowledge – Wayne even invited his sons onto the set to see the radiation spikes on a Geiger counter – this is where the cast and crew would be located for the film’s entire production. Thirteen weeks of breathing in the dust and drinking from local streams. And then some: in the belated interests of ‘authenticity’, Howard Hughes later paid for 60 tons of the radioactive dirt to be shipped back to the RKO studio lot in Hollywood for reshoots.
The consequences were terrifying. By 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew had been diagnosed with cancer. Forty-six then died of it, including John Wayne, Dick Powell and every leading supporting cast member. Pedro Armendáriz would also be diagnosed, but committed suicide after hearing the news, shortly after filming From Russia With Love in 1963. Numerous American Indians who served as Mongolian warriors contracted cancer in later years, and even John Wayne’s son Michael died in 2003 of cancer, after visiting his father on the set at age 22.
By 1980, 91 of the 220 cast and crew had been diagnosed with cancer. Forty-six then died of it, including John Wayne, Dick Powell and every leading supporting cast member
Investigations since have questioned whether the Snow Canyon radiation was wholly to blame – instead arguing that the heavy smoking habits of the cast (John Wayne smoked five packs a day) could have been equally responsible. Even so, the idea that Wayne, the living embodiment of US superpatriot militarism, could have died as a result of military testing is ironic to say the least. Commenting in a People Magazine article on the deaths in 1980, a spokesman from the Pentagon Defense Nuclear Agency was moved to say: “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”
Within a year of the film’s catastrophic debut, Howard Hughes knew that The Conqueror was toxic in every sense: financially, critically and now literally. Wracked with guilt, he spent $12 million – double the film’s original budget – locating and purchasing every single print of the movie that had ever been copied before storing them at one of his mansions. He later campaigned against nuclear testing in Nevada – the shockwaves were powerful enough to shake several of his Las Vegas hotels – and even instructed his representatives to offer million-dollar bribes to both presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in an attempt to stop them.
And yet the shame of The Conqueror lingered into his final years. It would be Hughes’ final motion picture project, ending his 30-year involvement with the film industry. The box office failure would also be responsible for the demise of RKO Pictures studios. And, until Paramount acquired the rights in 1979 following his death, he would be the only person on Earth allowed to see it.
But the Duke himself? Reportedly, Wayne regretted playing Temujin so much that he visibly shuddered whenever anyone mentioned the film’s name. He attributed the film’s failure to the fact that “…people wouldn’t accept me as Genghis Khan. I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won’t take anything else.”
Before his death in 1979, however, he became more philosophical. And the moral of the Conqueror was far simpler, he said: “Don’t make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you are not suited for.”
Maybe Warren Beatty should have made his Hughes movie about THIS.
Meanwhile, speaking of “The Cancer of Human History” (hat-tip Susan Sontag)
Hours later, Jason Miller, the communications manager for the Trump transition team, explained he “was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it – particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes”.
Mr Miller also added that the president-elect “emphasised the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength”.
Mr Trump’s tweet came after President Putin met with his military advisers to review Russian military activities in 2016.
Take it away Vera!