Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout

It is tempting to say the notorious Howard Hughes-produced epic The Conqueror “bombed,” but much like Waterworld, it actually did decent box office when it initially opened. However, Hughes did not see any profits when you factor in what he spent on marketing. Of course, it is not like any of that money came out of the pocket of its iconic star, John Wayne, but tragically, he was one of many cast- and crew-members who contracted cancer years after making the dubious movie. Filmmaker William Nunez chronicles the film’s controversial history in The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout, which releases this Friday in theaters and on-demand.

Ironically, the location shoot near St. George, Utah was quite pleasant for both the local community and their Hollywood visitors. Unfortunately, the area was closely downwind from the nuclear testing grounds in Nevada. That was probably something Hughes and the studio executives should have thought more about at the time.

Apparently, they were too busy making bad cinematic decisions. Even though there was little criticism of “yellowface” casting at the time, having Wayne portray Temujin, a.k.a. Genghis Khan, was still quite the head-scratcher. Oscar Millard’s pretentiously “elevated”-sounding screenplay did not do Wayne, or the film itself, any favors. Plus, actor Dick Powell was clearly hired to direct because he was happy to defer to Hughes, rather than assert his authority or judgment.

Roughly the first half of
Hollywood Fallout serves up some fascinating and rather bittersweet Hollywood history. Sadly, but inevitably, the film takes a grim turn as the residents of St. George start contracting cancer at suspiciously high rates. When they notice how many of their old Hollywood guests were also stricken with suspiciously high rates of cancer, they start putting the pieces together.

Nunez and his interview subjects convincingly indict the now-defunct U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for its callous and contemptuous disregard for average Americans’ safety. (Nolan’s
Oppenheimer does not make them look so great, either.) They were dissolved in 1975, with most of their duties absorbed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The pain and frustration of St. George families is a national disgrace. However, Nunez overstates his case and undermines the film’s credibility in the closing minutes by implying the entire nation west of Nevada was impacted by above-ground testing. This seems observably exaggerated. Also, the film implies the below-ground post-1963 nuclear treaty tests are a continued danger, but supplies no evidence to support this off-hand contention.

Mercifully, only one of Nunez’s talking heads is obsessed with the film’s non-Asian casting. It is also reassuring to see Michael Medved, who frequently torches
The Conqueror for simply being a bad movie. Movie fans will also appreciate the fresh perspective on John Wayne and Susan Hayward, whose grown children discuss the 1956 film quite candidly and even-handedly. Recommended for the cultural history more than the nuclear commentary, The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout releases tomorrow (6/28) in theaters and on-demand.