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203: The Conqueror with Ryan Uytdewilligen

Today we’ll be talking about the 1956 movie The Conqueror with author Ryan Uytdewilligen.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre  01:51

We’ll dive into some of the details of the movie in a moment. But before we do that, and if we take a step back, and had to give the Conqueror a letter grade for historical accuracy from an overall perspective, what would it get?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  02:04

Well, is this out of just A to F? Or is this the whole alphabet?


Dan LeFebvre  02:10

I suppose I suppose we can make some special exceptions.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  02:15

Yeah, if we start with z and then just go beyond there and make a letter because yeah, its goal was to conquer conqueror if you’re looking to learn something about history. Great.


Dan LeFebvre  02:32

But there’s a big elephant in the room, I want to address up front in movies from 1956. It still doesn’t really excuse it from some inexcusable things. Right up front, John Wayne is getting his con Susan Hayward is bored Ty, certainly not the first time that Hollywood has done what’s now known as yellow face casting white people in the place of Asian roles. And Mickey Rooney’s character, probably one of the most popular. But I also know that you dedicated a chapter in your book about this. Yes. Can you give us an overview of your thoughts on that?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  03:06

Yeah, of course, it’s it’s something that you know, was unavoidable to talk about. And it just seemed more and more fitting to, you know, not just address it, but explore it and the root of why it was happening. And so in the book, I give somewhat of an overview. I had initially included like the origins of blackface makeup as well. But just to keep with the theme of the actual movie, I talked about the history of yellow face makeup, and then especially at that time in the 1950s, it was just like, nobody cared like they were initially going to cast Marlon Brando as getting his cars and they wanted you Will Brynner. So there was never any Asian actor ever considered to be in the role and, you know, back then it just, it wasn’t considered unfortunately, there was not a lot of viable, quote unquote, stars or, you know, people that they would let on screen as opposed to smaller, more, you know, servant type roles that they would normally cast to Asian actors in that are demeaning, and it’s taken forever to actually get proper representation. But yeah, they didn’t bat an eye here and they would bring John Wayne into colorist face get the right skin tones. They use elastic bands to you know, the the corrector is they call it slant I slant to play the role. And, again, no one really questioned it beyond the director Dick Powell, who is shorter is sort of brought out as a hired gun. And he sort of said, Really, John Wayne is getting this con and then he didn’t say anything because it was like yeah, of course it’s he’s, he’s He’s John Wayne. So really, there was no producer in the room or Anybody who is saying, Oh, this is a bad idea, this is insensitive, and it would take decades after this, you know, Marlon Brando turned down the role so he could play another one. I believe it’s now the title just escapes me, but he also plays a Japanese owner of a tea house. And yeah, then you mentioned Mickey Rooney’s famous characterization in Breakfast at Tiffany’s movie that I loved. But yeah, looking back at a lot of these movies, they they do not age well, at all because of this. And, you know, it’s hard to explain to people like what what was going through the mind and you’re trying to, you know, I don’t want to defend their decisions, but at the same time, like they, you know, there, it wasn’t all there, there was definitely racism at play behind the decisions, but it just, it wasn’t as thought of and is calculated as some might seem.


Dan LeFebvre  05:59

They didn’t think about it. Maybe that’s the problem. They didn’t think about


Ryan Uytdewilligen  06:01

  1. Exactly. No, John Wayne owed RKO studios, three movies. He did too. And he just wanted to get the contract over and done with so he picked this movie, and they cast him and that was that. So you know, it sounds like a crazy. Casting misfire. And a lot of critics at the time even pointed that out. But still, yeah, no one no one better than if they just said, Okay, this is what you want to do. Great. Moving on.


Dan LeFebvre  06:31

Something else I wanted to address up front and it’s another elephant in room when he talks about this movie. Just the blatant sexism in the movie. There’s, throughout the entire movie board is treated like a possession. He’s she gets hit, she’s thrown around and forced married, things like that, you know, lots of abuse that we see, both on the screen and plenties implied like we she’s forced to share a tent with Temujin. Was this sort of abuse common in that era in history? Or is that more of a Hollywood thing? Again, we’re talking about, you know, another issue with Hollywood?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  07:03

Well, absolutely. It was definitely commonplace in that time in Kansas Khan’s time. So yeah, they probably scaled it down quite a bit because of Hollywood censorship. But this movie is yeah, very sexist, as opposed to a lot of movies that were coming out at the time, even though Howard Hughes took over RKO in 1948. And generally what a lot of people figured he did that for us. So he could contract young starlets and just abuse them, he would you would have this whole long list of of young actresses who are trying to make it big, and he was the big producer. And you know, he just kind of had them all on speed dial and like, Okay, I’ll put you in this movie if you do something for me. And so that was what he was doing for about five or six years. And even afterwards, when he sold the studio of a word on the street as he went on a date with Susan Hayward in the late 40s. It did not go well. And he held that against her and wanted to get revenge. So this movie is pretty awful. And the role is, as you said, like she’s basically just a possession. She has to do some some terrible dancing like, almost a striptease at one point. And she’s just being passed. Sometimes they in some scenes by one character to another just high above the ground. They like one scene, John Wayne just inexplicably laughs and then picks her up. And that’s the end of the scene like Okay, that’s great. But yeah, so I have a lot of people think that Howard Hughes recognize that this is a terrible role, and he cast her in there to embarrass her and get his revenge. So yeah, a lot of it was just because of Howard Hughes’s tastes. He was making a lot of these types of movies at that time, like one called Son of Sinbad, and that’s all about these harems. And I think there’s about four or five different movies that he did, at that point at a time where I just think, a lot of scantily clad ladies doing dancing for no reason whatsoever, just sort of an interlude to appease his sexist tastes.


Dan LeFebvre  09:17

We started off with two great great things they Wow.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  09:21

Yeah, there’s there’s a lot that I address in the book as well, because there’s just, you know, there’s so much to dive in is like, what’s so wrong with this movie?


Dan LeFebvre  09:32

So, so many things, so many things. And we haven’t even gotten to the historical side. Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Well, in the opening sequence, speaking of kind of going to more of the historical, we see telogen attack emarket caravan to capture more Thai. She’s explained in the movie as a tartar woman who’s being held by the chief. And then after the battle, he takes her away, basically kind of sets up the rest of the events that we see in movie. After capturing her he finds out that she’s the daughter of Comelec. Who was the Tartar chief that apparently poison 10 agents. Father, we find that out later on in the movie. How does the movie do depicting how intelligent and wartime met?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  10:16

Not? Well, now? Well, I don’t know if you know, firstly, what should the history of Guinness Khan and sort of what?


Dan LeFebvre  10:24

It’s been a while since I’ve, I’ve researched it, that’s for sure.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  10:28

Okay. Yes. Well, he was they were they both were children when they met really? You know, what it’s theorized they were between the ages of nine and 12. So John Wayne is 50 years old, and this movie and so obviously, very tweaked and changed for that, because it was somewhat of an arranged marriage at that point that, you know, they weren’t officially married, but it was sort of a set thing when they were children that they were to be married at some point. And so this stealing aboard tie and then and then rescuing her afterwards, in real life, they were married after that situation became a couple but here, yes, there’s sort of the I don’t want to call it a meet cute at the beginning, but they do meet each other in the in the desert. And it’s definitely not how it went.


Dan LeFebvre  11:24

After that attack that we see in movie we see the Murcott chief he target, or target I believe is his name. He retaliates by attacking Timmons home, he burns a lot of the houses, freeze the horses, but then Temujin kills him. And then he plans his attack on Comelec, which, as I was watching this, it didn’t seem like anything that he really wanted to do at the beginning of the movie, it just seems like all this kind of falls into his lap. And so the impression I got was, all of this is centered around for tie. Is there any truth to that?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  11:58

Not really. There, there, of course, was when they, you know, rescued her and brought her back and then they were married, that that’s basically the only little blip. That’s actually true here. The fun fact that I like to tell people that I found out about the screenwriter, Oscar Millard, he didn’t know who Gus Kahn was, when he took the meeting, to write the script, he was brought on as a writer for hire. And he was a really smart guy, you been nominated for an Academy Award for writing a couple of years beforehand. And he before he took the meeting, was just thumbing through encyclopedia, and then had to look it up and like, Okay, this is who they’re referring to, this is what Ganga has come means they took the meeting, and went in that way, completely blind. So, you know, back in those days, a lot of these biblical epics were a lot more classical. And trying to, you know, be entertaining for modern audiences with a romance so they really played up the actual romance point of view and, you know, relationship between for tight and intelligent because it’s, you know, it’s really not how it played out. It was a lot. Well, we don’t know, we don’t know what kind of lover relationship that they actually did have. But here it’s a lot more flirtatious, almost, will they won’t they and really driving what, what Temujin wanted to do it and conquer when really, you know, that relationship didn’t drive him much.


Dan LeFebvre  13:38

So what was his driver then was essentially, building the Empire was his driver.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  13:42

Yeah, absolutely. Land, land and power.


Dan LeFebvre  13:46

Okay. Okay. I mean, that makes that makes sense. Just not what we get from the movie at all.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  13:52

No, and now, that would be a very different movie. And I think, you know, it’s more truthful, but usually in these types of movies, you know, motivation like that. How do you convey that just, maybe better hands, you could have a better story, but you know, in the 50s characters bent on just getting more land and conquering it’s, it’s just, it doesn’t drive with the type of movies that we’re making and wanting to tell.


Dan LeFebvre  14:20

In one of the battles that we see in the movie between the Mongols and the Tartars Temujin is shot with an arrow and he’s captured, he does manage to escape. Conveniently, there’s a cave nearby that he can hide in while the rest of his soldiers get routed. It seemed like a pretty significant defeat. Were there any defeats like that where telogen barely made it away alive?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  14:42

Not that I could find with the movie you know, it kind of happens with the screenwriter lingo. It’s the all is lost point where he’s at His weakest and so obviously, they had to include something to make it seem like he’s not going to make it when he obviously is this great and conquer. But the thing is Khan actually died from a illness and they’re not sure what it was. And some scholars have pinpointed it that he actually in battle, fell off his horse and then contracted something. And it festered inside him for a couple of months, and then he died. But you know that they’re really not sure. It’s just this mysterious illness that he died of. And I’m sure he did get struck with arrows. And I don’t know, I’ve with the amount of people that he had fighting with him, there was no way that he was going to be cast off alone like this. And in his very young days, he was at His weakest point when his father was actually killed. But, you know, he would have been just a boy and sort of Fending off for himself at that point. So nothing unfortunately, that’s what is depicted in the movie. What you


Dan LeFebvre  15:58

brought up something that made me curious, because in the movie, at the timeline of the movie, his father is already dead. But then you were saying that you’re getting ISKCON and bowtie actually met, you know, as kids. So obviously, you know, there’s an age difference there. What timeline is the movie trying to be in?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  16:23

I wish I knew, I don’t know that the screenwriters and the actual people behind it know, because now there’s a lot of little interesting facts, Andrew, and when you go and look at his life, it’s so huge, and a lot of it is spent conquering land, but there is that tiny, little blip. That is, well he, you know, and it would have been better. I think if they did it, you know, knowing that oh, yeah, well, for time and him and him have history, then she’s kidnapped and he goes to rescuer, it’s kind of like that in the movie, but I think they really played that up, because that’s where a sense of adventure and sort of grand old storytelling of going to rescue the damsel in distress comes from so I, you know, I think they just extrapolated that little, tiny portion. And they threw in a couple of real life characters and made quite a few of them up. And that’s really what we get as far as a representation of history. You know, it’s, it’s a small point somewhat of a an origin story, you could call it of, of Ganga. ISKCON,


Dan LeFebvre  17:31

would it be correct to basically say, they’re essentially cherry picking things and, and then throwing it together into a new story? Almost.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  17:38

Basically, yeah, you really can identify a time period in his life. Well, that would that would be accurate. I mean, he would be a young person and in his teens at this point, when this was happening in this actual rescue took place, but, you know, then a good 10 years goes by where he’s conquering all of the other tribes. And then finally, he receives the title gangers con. So yeah, he’d say, you see that a lot. And we we see you can really focus and hold this one up and faulted because of that, because a lot of movies do, pick and take little pieces of time periods and switch them around to make it more palatable for audiences. And you know, probably the least the lesser sin that this movie committed.


Dan LeFebvre  18:35

Yeah, yeah, that’s true. Yeah, it is common in movies and it makes sense. I mean, you’re trying to take years and years and throw it in here. I just didn’t know if there was a particular part that they were trying to focus on in within his life or if they really were just kind of picking and choosing and and polling, as is common


Ryan Uytdewilligen  18:53

word on the street as Howard Hughes just showed up one day to the office or the RKO offices or wherever he was communicating with and just said we should do a movie about gangs con, just out of the blue. Okay, so they tried to get it going and ultimately did it with John Wayne, but yeah, there was really when you look at him and the screenwriter, there was really no like yearning like oh, let’s tell this history let’s let’s really get into this and represent something. It was like Oh, cool. epics are popular. Kangas con. Okay, off we go.


Dan LeFebvre  19:30

Wow. Wow. A lot of forethought put into that. Yeah. Well, if we head back to the movie we see telogen gathering clans of Mongols going to war against come like in addition to the Mongol clans he also tries to get help from his father’s blood Brother Wang con. He sends his brother I think two of his brothers actually. It was kind of iffy there were some parts were kind of mentioned Kasara was his brother. but I wasn’t sure if they were referring to actually like, actual biological brother, if that’s what they mean. Or if they’re just kind of saying


Ryan Uytdewilligen  20:08

what I understand. I just Yeah, I believe it’s just, you know, they sort of call each other brother all throughout. So I think that was just sort of, like the clan speak they were trying to go for. Okay, okay. Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was that or if it was actually a biological thing.


Dan LeFebvre  20:24

But then they go to try to get wind cones, armies, which we never really see. But we assume that you know, this isn’t These are big armies, right. And then the shaman gets in the way he has because are killed. He goes to telogen and tells him that Wayne con is not going to send his armies and we’re just going to watch and wait for you to be destroyed. And so then he convinced his Temujin to turn on his father’s blood brother, and take the city for his own. And the shaman even goes in there and mortally wounds the con. The next day, we see the generals swearing allegiance to Temujin he declares himself not only the chief of the Mongols, also the ruler over any possessions of Wayne con it just the big turn, right. And I know that there’s a lot thrown in there, it just happens pretty quickly in the movie as well. But how does the movie do showing this? And kind of That almost seems to be his rise to power in the movie, where he was a leader to begin with. But now he’s the big leader.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  21:24

Yes, exactly. Yeah, he was a leader from what I understand that that little portion is is true with Lincoln and you know, actual, the turning on it and the battle let that from what I understand is one of the only little accurate parts, but it’s only a very small portion of it. In all of what I could find, like the you mentioned the character of of cumulate I don’t leave that character existed. I think that was a fictional representation. And that’s what they did a lot like with this movie, like the sidekick Jumuah it was, you know, they even changed the spelling was more of a rival to gangs con, or Temujin. They, you know, they work together a little bit earlier on in his life. But, you know, they they actually fought each other. And that’s something that is kind of hinted to, towards the end the story. But yes, most of these representations are either amalgamations of different characters, or just completely fictional entirely.


Dan LeFebvre  22:32

What was his rise to power, then he basically did he take over wing con, and then be kind of become the great leader, that was


Ryan Uytdewilligen  22:39

a way it took a long time like a tug. You know, it’s a very simplistic battle, here is the day you get one fight, when it took, I think around 10 years for him to wipe out all the other different tribes because there you know, there were targeted tribes and different people were constantly standing up to him or, you know, he would go and send his his armies that would constantly grow and then, you know, pillage and take over so I think, yeah, between what’s depicted there with win con, it was another 10 years of actually rising to power until he was finally recognized as the, the great universal ruler. Well, that that makes it sound


Dan LeFebvre  23:21

a lot more deliberate than the movie for sure. Because in the movie, we have that shaman character that he I think he was even cast as Shaman. So you know, yeah,


Ryan Uytdewilligen  23:29

who is definitely definitely fictional.


Dan LeFebvre  23:33

But it just seems like like a maybe maybe the shaman character had been planning something like this for a while, but it seems as far as from damages point of view, like a last minute just turning on his friends type moment. Whereas if it actually took 10 years, that’s a little more deliberate?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  23:51

Absolutely. They’re going to shrink that down to make it you know, to make it a drama and a more dramatic choice. But yeah, it’s it’s not representative, it was a lot more fighting and strategy and you no longer rise to power. Well,


Dan LeFebvre  24:15

there is a scene in the Tartar village where boy died she was she was rescued from by her father from Temujin. And then she says something about she tells Jumuah that I’ll gladly betray my father cast my people into Mongo bondage just to be intelligence arms right she says she’s consumed with the wants of him with just seems like again, like really fast Hearn that all of a sudden, you know, this, this guy that she hates treats her terribly throughout the entire movie, both before and after her apparently falling for him. It just seems like it was like a real fast turn. But even from what you’re saying before, it sounds like there’s probably not much accuracy to that. Turn in more ties.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  25:02

No like, yeah, she she has a very sudden love for him that makes absolutely no sense. And it’s you know, even as a screenwriting standpoint it just see that there’s no motivation other than, you know, she was kind of saved by him that he’s a rippling, strong man, that’s really all that she has to go on. She’s not a developed character. And so, yeah, that relationship isn’t very convincing. But when you look back at what they actually did have to go on, you know, what I said before when they were children when they were first met. So, you know, there’s, you know, a very different historical standpoint to draw in that way. But a lot of marriages back then were and still are, unfortunately, arranged or, you know, exchange for land exchange for power armies, so there wasn’t a lot of Hollywood romance thrown into the mix. It was a lot more love it was a lot quicker for sure. And a lot more pairings that were made that Yeah, unfortunately had nothing to do with love.


Dan LeFebvre  26:17

So it was their marriage actually wasn’t arranged marriage was more tied than like the daughter of a chief or something.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  26:24

I believe it started that way. You know, there was they didn’t meet and fall in love. It was you know, one tribe and another that it was sort of alluded to, and then it didn’t happen because she I believe that’s when Tim Mogens father died and so it got put on hold. That’s when she was taken after all that took place then the actual marriage. I don’t I don’t know if there’s any dates available out there what age they were, but it happened sometime after that point.


Dan LeFebvre  26:55

Okay, so so she it was for merging tribes, essentially, it was for a political purpose. Yes, yes. Okay. Yeah. Not not like what we see in the movie. Can even in the beginning in and then opening scene like when you when he first sees her it’s there’s nothing really political about it. He didn’t even know that she was the daughter of the guy who killed her his his dad at first. And the movie? No, it’s


Ryan Uytdewilligen  27:23

love at first sight. She’s sort of riding on this little chariot, but like being carried throughout the desert, and she looks stunning. Like, like, she has never set foot in the desert before. And, of course, you know, it’s Susan Hayward. So she’s got red hair and makeup and Hollywood glamour. Radiating so yeah, of course, he’s gonna fall in love with this, this actress This portrayal. But yeah, it’s nothing to do with real life.


Dan LeFebvre  27:53

Well, I have a feeling I might know the answer to the next question then. Because near near the end of the movie, yeah. It leads up to this big battle right in the big battles between Temujin and Kubelik. There’s cavalry on both sides. Interestingly, I didn’t see any infantry fighting. It’s just just cavalry. And then during the battle, you know, the two leaders of course have to face head to head. And then the battle itself between telogen and cupola. He’s like, just a couple of seconds long. Before Temujin kills him was, I mean, you said Kubelik was probably a fictional character anyways,


Ryan Uytdewilligen  28:28

a fictional character and probably a representation of you know, many, he had many battles, he killed many people killed many leaders. So, you know, probably my best guess is that the screenwriter just needed some sort of villain some sort of character to add in the end. And as you said, like, it seems very anticlimactic, like it just sort of happens. And then and then that’s it. It’s a very for a movie that is fairly epic, and has seen, you know, some battle sequences and taking place in the desert. It’s, it’s wrapped up very quickly, but it’s, you know, they have little historical details to explore, and they just yet they have that character couldn’t like who, you know, they didn’t really have much motivation for him either. So they just decided to, obviously, accident because, you know, Genghis Khan, obviously, continues on after the point of this movie. So the point of the story that they were telling in the movie Yeah,


Dan LeFebvre  29:32

I actually had to watch that scene twice because I was watching it and I was taking notes as I was watching is as I usually do, and then was over I was like, Wait, what did I miss? Is it Wait, what? This is the big the big fight at the end? What it’s over. I had to go so I have to go back and watch it again. Okay. It was just very anticlimactic. At the end there after comic is killed in the movie. There’s a line in the movie. Where Jumuah tells his brother that you have no need of me henceforth my brother you have found your destiny, far greater conquest will be yours Temujin and men will call you and eat while he pronounces it Genghis Khan, the perfect warrior. And that’s the only time throughout the movie that Temujin is called Genghis Khan. Is that the true story of how he got the title?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  30:23

No. We did not steal that there were, you know, we don’t really know where that title came from. But it did sort of happen. Like, at the end, there’s sort of a ceremony or a big celebration. That part is accurate. Like, eventually, he was after that sort of 10 year long rise to the top where, you know, he was dubbed gangers Khan, which is, you know, universal ruler. So we don’t know who gave it to him. But it sort of was this honor that was bestowed upon him by all of his followers, when really he had to meet little people at that time to actually fight with he, he reached the top. So that part is how it is depicted not by who gives him the title. And again, it could have been anyone, it could have been this collective group, or just something that had been sort of talked about or, you know, people starting to call him this name. And then it starts to gain popularity, maybe that’s what happened as well. But you know, he was celebrated in this, this big way, and officially called by this name, through a celebration. And I mean,


Dan LeFebvre  31:47

I guess he reached the top yet, maybe he just gave it to himself. When you’re at the top, I guess you can do whatever you want.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  31:55

It could be it could be yeah, there’s a lot of speculation.


Dan LeFebvre  31:58

We do get some voiceover at the very end of the movie that says the Great Khan made such conquest as we’re undreamed of by mortal men and men. It says for 100 years, the children of their loins speaking of Temujin, and more Thai ruled half the world. I thought it was very interesting that that ending there because as as I was watching that I realized, you know, I’m watching this movie, it’s called the conqueror. And really, the only thing that we really see him or the only mention of him making these huge conquests and conquering is is that that little bit of dialogue at the end, you know, throughout the story, and I’m sure it could be an entire podcast series in and of itself but for getting his cons real conquest since we don’t really see those in the movie. Can you give us kind of a brief overview or kind of a timeline of what actually happened in his life? A small


Ryan Uytdewilligen  32:52

bed Yeah, he was a lot of leading men a lot of battles and a lot of expanding forward you know, through China a little bit of Korea all the way to like there’s reaches all the way to Afghanistan in that area. So you know, there’s just yet a lot of conquering for as we touched on before for power for land and just for ultimate dominance. And then he does diet and anticlimactic way not the battle but because he follows up illness and yes, I there’s always that fact that a lot of people like to bring up that there’s a certain that it doesn’t help to that percentage escapes my memory right now that there’s a mound of lineage today that people can be traced back to again this Colin because of all the raping, and, you know, unfortunate business that he was doing is, was popular in that time. And that’s the weird thing about the movie as well, like it was filmed in the 50s in a very conservative time, and they portray him as a very noble, strong, mighty ruler, but they don’t even touch any of the negative parts. He was, you know, he was we see him as a mighty conqueror. Someone was stupid. He’s a very controversial figure, because obviously committed so many, even though it wasn’t, they weren’t crimes that was just the way of, of conquering it. And that was just murder and torture and rape and having multiple wives. I think there was more than just for Ty. But yeah, they obviously couldn’t put that in a movie at that time and getting his colony hours. John Wayne even said that he is or wanted to play the role as a gunfighter and saw gang as common as a cowboy. So he approached it in that direction. And so obviously, you get no representation, no accurate representation in that way. There’s been a couple of movies I think that’s that’s depicted his life, nothing out of Hollywood, there was a Chinese movie called Mongol that came out in 2007. That was somewhat of a, a very popular and accurate representation. There was a couple of movies also in the 50s, that sort of used getting this con as a villain, but nothing ever has really been portrayed. So I think now when you get a lot of limited series, like Vikings, or Rome, or things like that, I think, the story of Genghis Khan and what you can show now where you could tell because of the moral ambiguity, I think, you know, the story is probably right, for the picking for for show and in the coming years.


Dan LeFebvre  35:48

Yeah, yeah. And to tell it a little bit more accurately, then the Conqueror


Ryan Uytdewilligen  35:55

is exactly and it’s so old is the thing, too. I mean, this happened in the 11, the the end of the 1100s, early 1200s. So, so much is lost, and a lot is only speculated so you know, I don’t have a lot of knowledge to share with you, because there’s a few details of battles, but his day to day life. And the kind of person that he was, it’s all orally told through people who had memories and very little is available. So you know, what, what is available? Obviously, the screenwriter and or filmmakers of the Conqueror just tossed right out and used to leave tiny bits and pieces, but Well, and that’s the


Dan LeFebvre  36:39

way it is with history. Sometimes we don’t there’s a lot that we don’t know and you know, that can give the ability to fill in some of those holes in in movies and things like that, but, but also, you just just throw it you can just throw it out or and just like this one. Well, speaking of the movie, I know the movie, this one in particular did have a lot of controversy about where it was filmed the illnesses befalling the cast and crew after it was made. Can you share a little bit more about what happened?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  37:10

Yeah, well, it was filmed in near downwind of the Nevada nuclear test site, right after they had been busy, ramping up all these these tests in the early 50s. And so they chose this area just outside of St. George Utah called Snow Canyon, and they wanted to emulate the Gobi desert, and they looked into shooting in Mongolia, obviously, that was way too far. So they they picked this little spot, didn’t really do their their homework. And it was, but 130 some miles downwind of this test site, and a lot of wind had blown nuclear fallout that specifically piled into that area. So a lot of people in that area, St. George, Utah, a little bit of Nevada, they were actually getting sick in the late 50s. All throughout the 60s getting cancer, a lot of stillbirths, a lot of sheep had a lot of strange growth, and they couldn’t really quite figure out why until the late 60s, early 70s. And they pinpointed it was because of the nuclear tests. And then you also had related to the film you had director Dick Powell. Actors like Susan Hayward, Pedro, Armand deras, Agnes Morehead, they all died of cancer, John Wayne got cancer in 64, had a piece of his lung removed and actually beat it. But then he got cancer again in the late 70s and died from it. But in between there, he became sort of an advocate for cancer research. A lot of people speculate as because of their smoking all of these people, including John Wayne, were pack of a smokers who would, you know, and just constantly puff away. And so it’s a rumor that we’ll never really be able to prove and know, you know, there is real downwinder cases, there was a long battle through Congress to actually get an apology and some reparations for families who lost people because of nuclear testing Kinect contamination. And finally, they got ahead in the early 90s, and started to receive money and apologies and recognition. But the people who were involved in this film, it’s not just the stars, it’s dozens of cast members and crew members extras, they had hundreds of extras who were native tribe members from Utah in the area. And they’ll never know how many people actually died because they were brought into that contaminated area. But yeah, it’s constantly contested Burma.


Dan LeFebvre  39:50

You mentioned some legislation. Was there any legislation around the movie itself or anything tied to that?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  39:57

What the Conqueror did was help But shed some light on the issue because you there was famous faces who are dying and a couple of journalists who sort of pieced that together. And that happened in the late 70s, early 80s. And that was sort of the big breakthrough for the downwinders to actually get attention and get something moved through the government. But they allotted only certain payments for people who lived or were present in the states that were contaminated at certain pockets of time. And because of the film shoot, which was only a couple of months, and it was a couple of about a full year after the last nuclear test, the government just deemed that they were ineligible. So no one from the movie actually got any, any reparations, any forgiveness. There was one extra who really sort of took it on upon herself to try and fight for, or, you know, at least get some sort of apology or attention, Jeanne Gerson, and then she died in the early 90s. She had cancer, I think about at least three times and an old died of it. So yeah, I again, it’s still, as I put the book out here, it’s still a subject that people love bringing it up every now and then, because it’s such a strange rumor, like, Oh, John Wayne, and this whole cast and crew were plagued by cancer because of nuclear contamination. We’ll we’ll never know. We have people scientists who say yes, we have scientists who say no, government officials, it goes back and forth. But, you know, decades have gone by well over 50 years. 60 years, so it’s just unfortunately, yeah. Yeah, it’s, it’s in the past.


Dan LeFebvre  41:49

Nobody wants to accept responsibility for yeah, there’s something else as I was. I was trying to find a film to watch it as I prepare for it. You couldn’t find it on any streaming service had to buy the DVD to watch it. Man. It’s not the first time I’ve had to do that. But while I was looking for it, I noticed something about how Howard Hughes bought all of the prints and then kept it away from the public for a while. What’s that story?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  42:12

He’s the most fascinating man who ever lived.


Dan LeFebvre  42:18

I thought that was the beer guy. Isn’t that most interesting, man. Nevermind.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  42:25

Yeah, that’s right. God, ya know, him? Yes. And Howard Hughes. Yeah, he just had his finger at every pie this guy and then eventually, in 1955, after driving the studio into the ground, he sold RKO, they tried to get things back onto their feet. Ultimately, they couldn’t, they released the conqueror. It didn’t make back its money. So they closed the doors of this, this magnificent, magnificent studio. And so Howard Hughes approached them and bought back the conqueror, another movie that he and John Wade made called jet pilot. And he, there really was no clear reason he some people think that he just loved the movie so much. And the negative reception sort of bothered him. So he, he gathered at all. Some people think that the nucular contamination and the deaths of everyone was responsible. But it really couldn’t have been because he bought up the rights to this movie before those deaths started to happen. I think it was just something ultimately that he wanted to keep for himself and maybe try and make more money on a certain point. But then he did start buying up all the prints. And that’s where it gets a little murky, if if it was because it happened all throughout the 60s if it was him, you know, scooping up this because the movie was such such a terrible mess, and he was embarrassed by it or he felt bad for what was happening. Again, we’ll never know. But it was essentially a last film for about 20 years, no one saw it. It didn’t play on TV. RKO was one of the first studios to actually lend out their Film Library and start playing them on television with to apps and movies which being the Conqueror and the other one. And then at the end of Howard Hughes his life when he was in Las Vegas hotels and kind of losing his mind because of germs and all these different phobias. He would request his staff to put on the Conqueror and play it on repeat so he would watch it just 100 times over from his bed. A lot of people said that he was attracted to John Wayne and his portrayal he was attracted to the mighty conqueror image that maybe he saw in himself. We’ll never know. But that was something that was happening at the end of his life. And then, ultimately, yeah, it was finally released on VHS in the mid 80s. And because of all these stories of contamination and sort of took on a different life, and from then on out, it’s been hard to find, when you do find it, it’s usually referencing the poor reception, the miscasting or the, the new killer story. So, occasionally you can find it on TCM, but it’s still, it’s sort of a print by order basis. It’s run through universal now, and so I’m sure that’s how you got it as if you order it through them. They just manufacture one of these DVDs and send it to you. But there’s really not a lot of these copies floating around in stores. That’s for sure. It took me a while to hunt one down,


Dan LeFebvre  45:50

watching the movie on repeat, that would drive me crazy.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  45:56

Exactly, yeah. Yeah, that’s what better man it was watching the Conqueror over and over?


Dan LeFebvre  46:02

Wow, well, okay, let’s say you were in charge of this movie, what’s something you would have done differently? Or would it be easier just to say the one thing you would have kept this?


Ryan Uytdewilligen  46:10

But it’s all these these sins, these mistakes that I think keep it in its public eye and that people keep revisiting it. It’s sort of this, it’s so bad, it’s good kind of realm. So if I were to change something, I, it wouldn’t be well known anymore. I think if you change the casting of John Wayne and, and cast someone were suitable for the role, it would sort of fall into obscurity. And it really, it wouldn’t have mattered as much or if he actually filmed that, where it was supposed to. Maybe somewhere different. You know, I would probably do those two things if I was going to make this movie filmed somewhere safer and more proper and cast someone more appropriate. But yeah, it’s, uh, we got a very different tale out of it because of those mistakes.


Dan LeFebvre  47:02

Yeah, yeah. It would just would have been another bad movie that nobody knows about.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  47:06

Yeah, yeah, precisely.


Dan LeFebvre  47:08

Speaking of bait coming back into the public eye, your latest book is all about the making of the movie. Can you share an overview of your book and let someone listening to this know where they can


Ryan Uytdewilligen  47:19

learn more about your work? Yeah, it’s killing John Wayne, the making of the conqueror. It covers every possible side that you could think of related to this movie. So how are Howard Hughes decided to buy RKO and run it into the ground and make all these terrible movies. And this was sort of the big climax, the magnum opus, and how John Wayne got involved with Hughes and RKO and owed them three movies, and then the actual flood, problematic shoots. And then there’s a lot of new killer history as well, something I didn’t know much about, but found so interesting. Now, the actual Well, there is a lot of nuclear science in there. But I’m not a nuclear scientist. I’m a film historian. So I really touch on the cultural aspects of what was going on when these nuclear tests started happening in the late 40s. And how people would travel to Las Vegas just to feel the rumble of the nearby tests and people in the area were urged to actually come and watch the the tests unfold. And then I touched on a lot of the private lives that sort of intersect around this movie of the stars and people that were involved. And unfortunately, this the latter half is a lot of depth and a lot of despair of trying to get some some some light onto the actual aftermath not just of the conqueror, crew and cast but of downwinders in general.


Dan LeFebvre  48:52

Yeah, it’s a story to tell that’s for sure. Yeah,


Ryan Uytdewilligen  48:56

yeah, there’s so many different facets so if you like film history, if you like, American history, nuclear history, if you like, the history of business and how a movie studio like the the studio collapse, and this sort of the at the end of the studio system and the Golden Age of Hollywood, so there’s really something in it for everyone. If you’re interested at all and you could pick it up in any bookstore, have it ordered through you know, any of the books suppliers that you go through or Amazon


Dan LeFebvre  49:27

perfect and I’ll make sure to include a link to that in the show notes for this episode as well. Thank you so much for coming in to chat about the conqueror.


Ryan Uytdewilligen  49:33

Perfect thank you very much for having me. I have a lot of fun



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