Several weeks ago I was sent an early galley for Sam Moffie’s soon to be released book To Kill The Duke. At first I was convinced that Sam had completely lost his mind! The plot that Sam uses is that Josef Stalin sent assassins to the US to wipe out John Wayne. And as a backdrop to this unlikely scenario the making of a movie named The Conqueror was used. In the movie John Wayne plays the part of Genghis Kahn. I like Sam Moffie, but honestly, I thought he had lost his marbles!

John Wayne playing anything but a western gunslinger seemed outrageous. To add even more incredulity this movie was supposedly funded by none other than the famous recluse Howard Hughes.

The entire plot seemed as likely as the Kardashian sisters becoming nuns.

Well, I have to eat crow on this one, other than the Kardashian comment the rest is indeed true.

Stalin was quite the movie fan and loved to watch John Wayne films, but also hated Wayne for the western decadence that he represented. In recently released Kremlin documents there is evidence that Stalin did indeed approve of a plan to Kill The Duke!

The film The Conquerors is also true. In 1956 John Wayne played the part of Genghis Kahn. The Conqueror certainly did not conquer the Box Office. It was a classic flop!

Howard Hughes was the money man, and it is claimed that the budget to make it was $6,000,000. $6 mil may not sound much like a huge sum today, the box office disaster Waterworld cost an estimated $175,000,000. However, we are talking about 1956, fifty years ago the dollar bought way more than it does today.

The Conqueror may have been a complete box office disaster, but it is a movie mired in controversy. At the center of the controversy is the dreaded ‘C’ word, Cancer.

The film was shot just outside St George, Utah. This community was approximately 120 miles downwind of the Nevada Test Range which in the early 50’s was the site for Nuclear Bomb testing.

The well known Wikipedia has this to say:

The cast and crew totaled 220 people. By 1981, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer and 46 had died of the disease. Several of Wayne and Hayward’s relatives also had cancer scares as well after visiting the set. Michael Wayne developed skin cancer, his brother Patrick had a benign tumor removed from his breast and Hayward’s son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth.

This certainly seems outside of the normal rates for cancer.

Obviously 1956 was a long time ago, I was one year old! But there are a few people still around that worked on the movie. Jack ‘Blackjack’ Young was a 30 year old stuntman and spent some three weeks working on the film.

He doubts that his four bouts with cancer were as a result of The Conqueror, yes, I did say four! But it does give you pause for thought.

The lump and bone removed from his shoulder could indeed be just a result of the many breaks and dislocations he managed to rack up over his working life. The skin cancer might well be attributed to way too much time out in the sun. The lump on his ear and the last battle with prostate cancer may well be just a coincidence.

I am not a medical expert, but I do wonder about The Conqueror.

Filmed in 1956 even Howard Hughes had his doubts about this movie. He bought all of the copies and sat on them for almost two decades before releasing it.


Simon Barrett   

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