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The Conqueror is a 1956 CinemaScope epic film produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Other performers included Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz. The picture was directed by actor/director Dick Powell. The film was principally shot near St. George, Utahmarker.

The picture was a critical and commercial failure (often ranked as one of the worst films of the 1950s), which is remarkable given the stature of the cast. Wayne, who was at the height of his career, had lobbied for the role after seeing the script and was widely believed to have been grossly miscast. (He was so "honored" by The Golden Turkey Awards.)

Reportedly, Howard Hughes felt guilty about his decisions regarding the film's production (see Cancer controversy below) and kept the film from view until 1974 when it was first broadcast on TV. The Conqueror, along with Ice Station Zebra, is said to be one of the films Hughes watched endlessly during his last years.

Plot

Mongol chief Temujin (later to be known as Genghis Khan) falls for Bortai, the daughter of the Tartar leader, and steals her away, precipitating war. Bortai spurns Temujin and is taken back in a raid. Temujin is later captured. Bortai falls in love with him and helps him escape. Temujin suspects he was betrayed by a fellow Mongol and sets out to find the traitor and to overcome the Tartars.

Cancer controversy

The exterior scenes were shot on location near St. George, Utahmarker, 137 miles downwind of the United States government's Nevada Test Sitemarker, Operation Upshot-Knothole, where extensive above-ground nuclear weapons testing occurred during the 1950s. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks on the site. In addition, Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood for re-shoots. The cast and crew knew about the nuclear tests—there are pictures of Wayne holding a Geiger counter during production—but the link between exposure to radioactive fallout and cancer was poorly understood then.

Powell died of cancer in January 1963, only a few years after the picture's completion. Hayward, Wayne, and Moorehead all died of cancer in the mid to late 1970s. Cast member actor John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960 and committed suicide after he learned it was terminal. Skeptics point to other factors such as the wide use of tobacco—Wayne and Moorehead in particular were heavy smokers—and the notion that cancer resulting from radiation exposure does not have such a long incubation period. The cast and crew totaled 220. 91 developed some form of cancer by 1981 and 46 had died of it by then. Dr. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utahmarker, stated, "With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30 some cancers to develop...I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law."

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