The Production and Legacy of The Conqueror (1956)

Considered to be one of the worst films ever made, the film, The Conqueror, was filmed in St. George, Utah. Many years later, after many of the stars of the film died of cancer, the connection between the film and fallout from atomic bomb testing in nearby Nevada was made.

The 1956 film The Conqueror has an interesting connection to the state of Utah. Produced by Howard Hughes and distributed by RKO Radio pictures, the residents of St. George knew their town was in for something big when the idea of filming a “religious extravaganza” in the area was proposed in a City Council meeting in spring 1954. The southern Utah not foreign to Hollywood productions as many films had been made in Kanab and elsewhere. However, this would be the first time a major movie would be filmed in St. George. Filming began in the summer of 1954, and cost a total of six million dollars - making it one of the most expensive films ever made up to that point.

The picture was directed by Dick Powell and star legendary Western actor John Wayne as Mongolian leader Genghis Khan. Susan Hayward starred as a beautiful Tartar princess who is captured by Khan. Location scouts believed Snow Canyon State Park, Escalante Desert, and a few smaller towns near St. George would be perfect landscapes for recreating the Gobi Desert. Seven-hundred locals were employed to work on the film, and an estimated $750,000 dollars was brought into the town’s economy. Hotels were booked, buses were rented, catering was provided from local restaurants and the Boy Scouts of America provided the crew with hundreds of chairs and tables. Many locals were even hired to be extras. Notably, a group of 300 Native Americans were used in a scene depicting a Mongol village. Summer tourists remember seeing large staged battles between costumed actors riding on horses.

Though the film performed quite well at the box office, it was largely forgotten by the American public until 1979 when it was purchased from the Howard Hughes estate by television stations. In 1980 more attention was brought to the film through an article published by People magazine. The article explained that 91 out of the 220 cast and crew members involved with The Conqueror, had contracted cancer. Up to that point, 46 of those individuals including Dick Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead had died from the disease. Some believe the cast and crew got cancer either due to happenstance or living a lifestyle consisting of smoking and drinking. However, many have theorized that radioactive fallout produced by atomic bomb testing on nearby Nevada test sites had caused St. George residents and people who were on the set of The Conqueror to have cancer. In 1980, Dr. Robert Pendleton a radiologist at the University of Utah, stated, “With 91 cancer cases, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law." Because of the film’s poor Shakespearean-style dialogue, strange romantic plot and miscasting of actors, The Conqueror is regarded as one of the worst films of all time. Throw in the theory on cancer and the film is viewed as one of the most famous “cursed films” ever made.

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