Two time Academy Award winning screenwriter, William Goldman, passed away in November of 2018. He left behind a notable body of work and an immortal quote about the biggest secret in Hollywood.
“Nobody knows anything,” Goldman said. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what is going to work. Every time out is a guess.”
In 1956, with the release of “The Conqueror,” John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell all found out that they had made a series of very bad guesses — and those guesses may have contributed to the death of three of them, while, in a small way, may have saved the lives of others.
In a pitch meeting, “The Conqueror,” must have sounded like a box office bonanza. John Wayne, coming off the recent success of “The High and The Mighty,” sought to play the starring role of Genghis Khan, opposite the sultry and talented Susan Hayward (five Oscar nominations and one win in her career) — all under the reliable direction of actor/filmmaker, Dick Powell.
Battle scenes, romance between sizzling screen stars, “The Conqueror” on paper had mojo before Hollywood knew what mojo was.
Produced by the unconventional, heading towards bizarre, Howard Hughes, costs were not an issue: filming locations included a nearly four month shoot in St. George, Utah, another very unfortunate choice.
When released, “The Conqueror” neither died nor soared at the box office: the eventual $9 million in receipts was respectable, if not impressive.
The problem was that the picture was charmless, formulaic horse opera that provoked laughter in all the wrong places. John Wayne, in full Fu Manchu regalia, was wildly miscast: his misguided efforts earned him a “Golden Turkey” award and a life-long regret for ever pushing for the role. Oscar Millard’s script is pure dreck. “I feel this Tartar woman is for me and my blood says, take her,” and “we will chase them like rats across the tundra,” are only two of the dozens of clunkers Wayne was forced to utter (Millard, tarnished in movies, resuscitated his writing career in television).
No one connected to the project acquitted themselves positively. Almost immediately, “The Conqueror” began turning up on lists of “The Worst Films Ever Made.” Hughes and company embarrassed themselves. But dreadful fates were just around the corner.
Dick Powell died first at the age of 58 on January 2, 1963. Lung cancer claimed his life — he was a heavy smoker, like many Hollywood elite in those times.
The death was shocker: Powell was extremely popular, having started in 1932 as a song-and-dance man who made a name for himself in Busby Berkeley musicals, moved on to more serious roles (“Murder My Sweet”), was heard frequently on the radio, then television (four regular series, three that carried his name in the title) and finally moving behind the camera into a director’s slot.
A side note: while Powell passed in 1963, his cremated remains now are in a niche in Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale, Ca.) with the wrong date of death — the plaque says 1962.
At any rate, health problems among those involved in filming “The Conqueror” began to mount — by 1980, of the 220 members of cast/crew, 90 had developed cancer. The stars of the film — John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead — all followed Powell to the grave with cancer. Both of Wayne’s sons, who spent time on the set, contracted the disease but survived.
These numbers drew considerable attention because of the St. George shooting location: it was some 137 miles away from the Nevada nuclear test site where 11 bombs had been detonated in 1953. Due to prevailing winds, St. George had been covered with a gray ash. Thousands of sheep in the area ultimately died.
Reportedly, Howard Hughes talked with the Atomic Energy Commission about the safety of filming in St. George and was given assurance that no problems would be encountered.
Although no connection can definitively be asserted, and today the St. George area is in fine fettle, the deaths did not go in vain: “The Conqueror,” in a minor but real way, raised the conversation level about the wisdom of nuclear testing (both above and below ground).
From July of 1945 until September of 1992, more than 1100 devices were tested in various sites in the United States. In 1990, the government established a trust fund to compensate victims killed or injured by radiation exposure. As of April of 2018, more than 34,000 claims had been approved and compensation paid exceeded $2 billion.
As for the film “The Conqueror,” Hughes withdrew it from circulation for a time — it is also said that he screened it, as well as another movie, “Ice Station Zebra,” hundreds of times as he lay dying in his secluded hotel room. Guesses have been made as to his motives for doing this — but remember what William Goldman said about guesses.