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The Conqueror Movie Review

wayne cancer died princess

1956 – Dick Powell –

John Wayne, playing twelfth-century cowboy warlord Genghis Khan, rides down with his men from the mountains, waylays a passing caravan, and in one sweeping gesture rips the virginally white dress off Princess Bortai (Susan Hayward). The Duke claims this Tartar woman as his bride, as the first half of the film becomes a primitive marriage manual. Alone with her in his tent, Genghis kisses the princess roughly, and first she resists, then responds. The next day she taunts him as a Mongol and gets under the big guy's skin. Figuring foreplay is the answer, Wayne takes Hayward to the harem of Wang Khan (Thomas Gomez), where they watch dance after seductive dance of the harem girls. “Does not their skill excite your admiration or even envy?” Wayne asks the princess. When he goads her further, saying that she lacks talent, Hayward boldly dances for him with a sword and the audience suspects a phallic connection. For her finish, she hurls the sword at the ogling men just to show them who's boss. Later, when Tartars attack, reclaim the princess, and capture Khan, Princess Bortai evens the war between the nomadic sexes by watching Wayne, whipped and sweating, being used with a yoke of water buffaloes to pull her coach. After letting him suffer for the rest of the day, she frees him under cover of darkness.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in what is one of the most celebrated bad movies of all time is that only the first half of the film measures up as classic camp. After the Tartar invasion, the focus shifts from the taming of the shrewish princess to the need to retaliate against the enemy. Most of the scenes in the second half are standard fare, the point of view shifting between the two forces and Wayne wondering if his brother (Pedro Armendariz) has remained loyal to him while in the clutches of the enemy. The battle scenes are unspectacular. William Conrad, however, is given a nice death scene when he uses his strength to pry out the bars on a window but then discovers he is too chubby to climb through the opening. As he is stabbed half in and half out of the aperture, he says, in one of the many terrible lines in the film, “My brawn now holds me captive.”

The setting for the production was Utah's Escalante Desert, and three of the nearby peaks were renamed Mount Wayne, Mount Hughes, and Mount Powell after the star, the producer, and the director. The nuclear testing a year earlier at Yucca (137 miles away), however, seems to have shortened the lives of an uncommonly large number of the cast and crew who were stricken with cancer in later life. Some reports even claim that the film crew transported sixty tons of contaminated soil back to Hollywood for scenes shot on sound stages dressed to look like exteriors. Of the 220 members of the film crew, 91 developed cancer, and 46 had died as of 1981, when Gabe Essoe did a tabulation for his Book of Movie Lists. The fatalities include the most famous names in the film: Director Powell died in 1963, John Wayne had three surgeries for cancer before he died in 1979, Susan Hayward died of a brain tumor (her fourth bout with cancer) in 1975, and Pedro Armendariz, told that he had cancer, committed suicide in 1963 following the completion of his scenes in From Russia, with Love. Agnes Moorehead seems to have been the first to notice the high death rate for those in the picture: “Everybody in the picture has gotten cancer and died. I should never have taken that part.” Moorehead herself died of lung cancer in 1974.

Cast: John Wayne (Temujin), Susan Hayward (Bortai), Pedro Armendariz (Jamuga), Agnes Moorehead (Hunlun), Thomas Gomez (Wang Khan), John Hoyt (Shaman), William Conrad (Kasar), Ted de Corsia (Kumlek), Leslie Bradley (Targutai), Lee Van Cleef (Chepei), Peter Mamakos (Borgurchi), Leo Gordon (Tartar captain), Richard Loo (Captain of the Guard), Sylvia Lewis (Harem dancer) Screenwriter: Oscar Millard Cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle Composer: Victor Young Producer: Howard Hughes Running Time: 111 minutes Format: VHS Budget: $6M.

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