Category Archives: LBoM: In Memorandum

In Memorandum: Sean Connery As Not Bond

What a shitty year for James Bond fans eh? Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Michael Lonsdale and now Sean Connery. For the last few days, I’ve struggled with trying to write something in way to pay respects to the great Sean Connery. I’ve sat here, just staring at a blank white screen and a blinking cursor for about an hour or so, no idea what to say now that Connery has sadly passed away. It’s not that there’s nothing to write about, just that, I already pretty much said it all back in August for his birthday. The man was an acting legend and one I’ve toughly enjoyed watching over the years. In my eyes, he deserves a memorandum write-up from me, just as I have done with others I admire and we’ve lost. But as I said, I’ve already pretty much covered his career for his birthday.

I suppose I could just be lazy and repost my article, give it a little update. But no, Sean Connery deserves better than that.

Every other article you’ve read about Connery, now that he’s gone, would probably prominently be about James Bond, it’s the character he was best known for and a character that has stood the test of time. He was the first to play James Bond don’t you know? Well technically, he was the third, but let’s not split hairs. But, he was so much more than one character, Sean Connery had a very lengthy career where he played numerous characters. That’s when it hit me, I could write a Sean Connery article that doesn’t mention Bond (except for this intro)  So, no James Bond from this point on, but a look at other characters Mr Connery has played over the years instead. In no particular order… except for the first and then saving the best for last, here’s some of my favourite Sean Connery performances that aren’t that famous British spy.


Zed

SEAN CONNERY ZARDOZ

I had to pick this one to start, I just had to. Just look at that for a striking image of a man! John Boorman’s Zardoz from 1974 is a sci-fi film that is very…. ‘interesting’. The film is set in 2293 and is about how the human race are split into two groups. Immortal ‘Eternals’ and the mortal ‘Brutals’. Connery plays Zed, a Brutal Exterminator, these Brutal Exterminators are ordered by a huge stone head called Zardoz to hunt, terrorise and kill other Brutals.

Look, the film makes no sense and was ravaged by critics at the time. It had a convoluted plot and connects to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that I really can’t be bothered to get into here. It’s a really stupid film, but one that has gone on to gain cult status among film fans. Plus, it had given us one hell of a great image of Sean Connery to remember him by too.

“Brain emissions refract low wavelength laser light, passing through the crystal in the brain. They’re a code sent to you for interpretation and storage. Yes or no?”

– Zed

Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez

RAMIREZ

Or just Ramírez to his friends. Oh how I love the 1986 flick, Highlander. You got Christopher Lambert, an American born actor, raised in France, playing a Scottish 16th century warrior. Then you have the very Scottish Sean Connery, playing an Egyptian from Spain. That’s some brilliant casting. Highlander tells the story if a secret war among immortals, who are destined to battle each other to the death until only one remains. But just how do you kill an immortal? Well, you cut their head of of course. Seriously, Highlander makes no sense… but it’s glorious.

Though I grew up watching certain famous spy movies as a kid which starred Sean Connery, this was the film that really made me a fan of his work. Just hearing that unmistakable Scottish brogue as the voice of a character who is an Egyptian from Spain (?) always made me chuckle. I love that, even though Connery was a truly amazing actor, he just never bothered to chance his voice. But his voice was almost like his trademark, hearing Sean Connery not sounding like Sean Connery just wouldn’t work. Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez is a perfect example of this.

“You have the manners of a goat and you smell like a dung-heap. And you’ve no knowledge whatsoever of your potential.”

–  Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez

Henry Jones, Sr.

HENRY JONES

It was my older bother who took me to the cinema back in 1989 to watch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. By then, I was a huge Indy fan as well as being an admirer of Sean Connery too. So to have the two meet and for me to watch them on the big screen was a pure joy. When the end credits rolled and as Henry Jones and his son rode off into the sunset, I had a huge smile on my face. The perfect end to a great trilogy (as it was then).

Despite there only being a twelve year gap between Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his father, the duo and chemistry between the two worked. They bounced of each other perfectly and created a very memorable double act that felt like a genuine father and son. Henry Jones, Sr was more than capable of keeping up with his adventurous son, in more ways than one… just ask Elsa.

“It tells me, that goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them!”

– Henry Jones, Sr.

Daniel Dravot

DANIEL DRAVOT

Michael Caine and Sean Connery were very close friends, it really is a shame these two titans of the big screen never did more films together. In fact, they only ever did one, 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King, based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 novella of the same name. In it Connery plays Daniel Dravot, a British Army soldier who, along with Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) got to Kāfiristān (modern-day Afghanistan) to forcibly take over as rulers.

The Man Who Would Be King is one of those great classics with both Michael Caine and Sean Connery on tip-top form. It is when Connery’s Daniel Dravot is mistaken for a God when things really get underway here. Both Sirs, Caine and Connery put in amazing performances, you can really tell how close they were as friends as their real life chemistry is right there on the screen. In fact both Michael Caine and Sean Connery went on record as saying that working on The Man Who Would Be King was the best experience of their careers.

“Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men.”

– Daniel Dravot

Draco

DRACO

Sean Connery was so damn amazing that he really could play anything, even a dragon! DragonHeart from 1996 saw Connery provide the voice for the last dragon in the world, Draco who teams up with a dragon hunter to take down a tyrannical leader. The twist is that some years before Draco saved this naughty leader when he was a child by giving him half of his heart.

Just as with any of his previous roles, Connery never changed his voice. So we have a very Scottish dragon in this fantasy action-adventure film, but it works. That was the beauty and majesty of Sean Connery’s voice, it just worked. From conveying anger, resentment to more lighter jokey lines, Connery really helped to bring this dragon to life. I mean, you don’t hire Sean Connery for voice work if you don’t want that iconic voice do you?

“You should never listen to minstrels’ fancies. A dragon would never hurt a soul, unless they tried to hurt him first.”

– Draco

King Agamemnon

AGAMEMNON

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits is one of those film you either ‘get’ or don’t. A surreal, very Gilliam-esque, time jumping fantasy adventure film. It is when the film’s main character Keven, finds himself in Mycenaean Greece when he crosses paths with King Agamemnon, played by Connery. This really is just an extended cameo and Connery is first hidden behind a helmet to reveal the surprise.

In fact, Terry Gilliam wrote in the script that King Agamemnon takes of his helmet ‘revealing someone that looks exactly like Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature’. Gilliam wanting someone as iconic as Connery, but knowing that having the man himself play the role would be almost impossible due to budget constraints. But the script for the film made its way into Connery’s hands and he loved it, the next thing Gilliam knew, Connery’s agent was on the phone saying how much he wanted to play the part. It really is a joyous performance and you can tell Sean Connery was having a lot of fun with it. A role he was in for the pleasure of acting over the money he was being paid.

“Well… You’re certainly a chatty little fellow, aren’t you?”

– King Agamemnon

John Patrick Mason

JOHN PATRICK MASON

He actually looks good with long hair eh? At this point, Connery was in his mid-sixties when he starred in the all action romp, The Rock from 1996. Playing John Mason, ex-SAS, all round bad-ass and the only man to have ever escaped Alcatraz Island. A bunch of of rogue U.S. Force Recon Marines take control of Alcatraz, holding tourists as prisoners and threatening San Francisco with missiles armed with toxic VX gas. Mason is forced to team up with the FBI’s top chemical weapons specialist to stop them.

I love this film, it’s just a great slice of action nonsense. It really is Sean Connery’s performance as the ageing John Mason that lifts this above just being another bog-standard action film. His chemistry with Nicolas Cage as FBI agent, Stanley Goodspeed really works. Connery almost becomes mentor-like to the inexperienced and nervous Cage, both on and off screen.

“I’ve been in jail longer than Nelson Mandela, so maybe you want me to run for President?”

– John Patrick Mason

Captain Marko Ramius

MARKO RAMIUS

The Hunt for Red October from 1990 is one of Connery’s most talked about roles… mainly for the fact he still used his thick Scottish accent to play a Russian submarine Captain. Set in 1984, Marko Ramius takes command of nuclear missile armed submarine, Red October. Making the sub seemingly ‘disappear’, the U.S. believe that Ramius is planning a renegade nuclear strike on U.S. soil. However, he actually wants to defect.

I’ve not seen this is a long time, yet I always remember it as being a pretty damn good thriller. Based on Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name and the first film appearance of the character, Jack Ryan. But it is Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius that makes this film what it is, a tense and taught thriller about a submarine.

“Once more, we play our dangerous game, a game of chess against our old adversary, The American Navy. For forty years, your fathers before you and your older brothers played this game and played it well. But today the game is different. We have the advantage.”

– Captain Marko Ramius

Jim Malone

SEAN CONNERY UNTOUCHABLES

This really is the big one. You see that main image for this article at the top, the one with Sean Connery lifting his first ever Oscar? Well, this is why he won it. That picture was taken at the 1988 Academy Awards, at that point Connery was a screen legend, already acting in movies for almost thirty-five years, yet that was his first and only Oscar win. It was this role as tough Irish cop (with a Scottish accent) Jim Malone in 1987’s The Untouchables that landed Connery that Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

A fantastic cast, a wonderful story, with some beautiful directing from Brian De Palma makes this one hell of a great flick. Yet, for me, it was Connery playing the straight-talking, no bullshit taking Jim Malone that really makes this worth watching again and again.

“You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson.”

– Jim Malone


So that’s it, just a few choice picks from Sean Connery’s illustrious acting career of some of my favourite characters. From silly sci-fi to gritty thrillers, Sean Connery was a true screen legend. The world is a slightly less enjoyable place without him.

SEAN CONNERY SMILE

“I have always hated that damn James Bond. I’d like to kill him.”

– Sean Connery

Ennio Morricone: Farewell To ‘The Maestro’

When it comes to film-making, it’s usually the actors and directors who get most of the credit and acclaim. The composers of the music rarely get a mention, yet their work is often just as, if not more important. These composers have to tell a story, convey emotions and even further plots without using words, for the most part. Take the infamous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho as example, do you think it would’ve been as effective without that screeching, nerve shattering music from Bernard Herrmann? Or would’ve Superman: The Movie been as effective without John Williams’ theme tune that screams ‘Sup-er-man!’ without even using words?

Some of the greatest films ever feature some of the finest and most memorable music, often from unsung or overlooked composers. Recently, the world of cinema lost one of its greats with the passing of Ennio Morricone and I’m taking the opportunity to remember the man known as ‘The Maestro’. Even if you don’t recognise the name, I guarantee you know at least one of his pieces of music, one in particular, a piece that is often whistled and referenced in many, many films.

ENNIO MORRICONE YOUNG

Ennio Morricone was born on the 10th of November, 1928 in Rome, Italy.  At the age of six, Ennio composed his first ever piece of music and learned how to play the trumpet. From then on, he fell in love with music and began writing more and more. In 1953 when he was twenty-five years old, Ennio landed a job writing tunes for radio shows which soon gave him the opportunity to write for TV and movies. In 1954, Ennio began composing music for films, though he was uncredited or often used the pseudonyms Dan Savio and Leo Nichols. 1961 saw his first credited film score with Il Federale (The Fascist). The early sixties was also when Ennio Morricone found fame with the film genre for which he would become most synonymous, the western, with 1963’s Duello nel Texas (Gunfight at Red Sands). But it was the following year in 1964 when he teamed up with director Sergio Leone when Ennio’s western score a really got noticed.

Due to budget constraints, Ennio Morricone couldn’t have a full orchestra for his music, so he had to improvise. Using a mix of whistles, whip cracks, the Jewish harp, various other sound effects and voices plus a few more conventional musical instruments, he created the score to Per un pugno di dollari, or to give it it’s English title, A Fistful of Dollars. This kick-started a hugely successful partner and friendship between Ennio Morricone and director Sergio Leone. Ennio’s music for the film was otherworldly, almost abstract it is structure, yet wonderfully melodic at the same time. A film score that would go down in history as one of the most influential ever made.

Two more films followed and they soon collectively became known as The Dollars Trilogy. 1965’s For a Few Dollars More saw Ennio Morricone’s experimentation with sound effects help cement his unorthodox and almost trademark style to creating music. But it was the third and final film of the three where Ennio’s music became immortal, and it is one tune in particular that is forever embedded into my brain. You know how I said everyone knows at least one Ennio Morricone piece of music? Well, this is that piece…

That one piece of music, that two minutes and fifty-five seconds of pure perfection from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is THE western score. Whenever I watch a film and there’s a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys, I always instinctively hear that piece of music in my head. Some films have even used it, or a variation of it for similar good/bad guy scenes. It has become synonymous with stand-offs, a musical cue to let you know that some bad shit is about to go down. This is easily Ennio Morricone’s most famous piece and it has had a long lasting legacy through cinema and beyond.

Through the sixties and seventies, Ennio’s music could be found in plenty of westerns. But his music also appeared in dramas, thrillers, horror and all sorts of flicks. Exorcist II: The Heretic is the very, very bad sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made. The film is universally hated by anyone with an ounce of film-taste, yet its music is often praised, music by Ennio Morricone. In 1979, Ennio was finally nominated for his first Oscar for his music from the romantic period flick, Days of Heaven. Alas, he didn’t win, losing out to John Williams for his amazing ‘Sup-er-man!’ theme.

Ennio Morricone’s music can be found in many films through the eighties and nineties, he just never stopped working. Sword and sorcery box-office bomb, Red Sonja. The amazing, The Untouchables. The Mel Gibson starring Hamlet and the taught thriller, In the Line of Fire all featured an Ennio score, just to name a few of his flicks. But of course, I can’t talk about Ennio Morricone’s scores and not mention one horror film in particular…

THE THING

Yes, the John Carpenter classic The Thing also has some of that Ennio music magic. One of the first horror flicks I remember seeing as a kid and one that has left a very lasting impression on me. That dog scene, man, that scene is the one single scene that got me so interested in horror films. I loved the gore, the effects, the fact it scared the shit out of me as a kid. But now when I watch The Thing, what hits me harder than the gore effects is the music. There’s this sense of hopelessness with the score, a feeling of dread and despair. Seeing as John Carpenter has always said that this film is an apocalyptic one, the music really works well to convey that foreboding feeling.

Ennio Morricone’s career never seemed to die down, he was popular and very much in demand as a composer for decades, even right up to today. One of his biggest fans was the writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Quentin had always wanted to work with Ennio many times over the years, but one obstacle or another always got in the way, usually a conflict of work patterns. Still, Quentin did use some of Ennio’s music for his films. Kill Bill (both parts), Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds all feature Ennio Morricone music. They were not original recordings though, just music taken from other films. Ennio did eventually write an original song, Ancora Qui, for a Quentin’s flick, Django Unchained. The film also featured three pre-existing pieces from Ennio Morricone’s extensive back catalogue. Their relationship blossomed and Ennio even presented Quentin with a Life Achievement Award at the International Rome Film Festival in 2013.

ENNIO MORRICONE QUENTIN

Then for his next flick, Quentin Tarantino finally realised his dream of having Ennio Morricone score an entire film. 2015’s The Hateful Eight saw Ennio provide music for the picture. Despite a stunning career spanning seven decades (at the time), Ennio Morricone never won an Oscar for his film scores. A total of five nominations between 1979 to 2001, but not a single win… until The Hateful Eight. Yes, finally in 2016, Ennio Morricone was nominated for and won the Oscar for Best Original Score, he was eighty-seven years old too. Ennio was the oldest person to win an Oscar at the time.

ENNIO MORRICONE OSCAR

What’s also amazing is that Ennio Morricone continued composing music into his nineties. In fact, the animated, The Canterville Ghost (based on the Oscar Wilde short story) to be released later this year features the last of his original scores.

Ennio Morricone died on the 6th of July, 2020 aged ninety-one due to complications after suffering a fall.

ENNIO MORRICONE B&W

“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”

– Ennio Morricone

Honor Blackman

Yes I know I’m a little bit late on this, but I’ve been busy with other writing projects. Still, I had to make time to remember Honor Blackman.

Honor Blackman was born on the 22nd of August, 1925. When Honor turned 15, her parents paid for acting lessons for her at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. While holding down a clerical assistant job and following her graduation from acting school, Honor appeared in a few stage plays in small roles. Hungry for more, she began seeking out a career in acting.

Her film acting career started when she appeared as Emma in the 1947 film, Fame Is the Spur, in a minor, non-speaking uncredited role. But it was the 60s when Honor’s film career really took off. A very memorable performance as the Greek goddess of women, Hera in the classic Jason and the Argonauts from 1963 got her noticed and she began to land more roles in both TV and the movies. In 1968, she starred in the western flick Shalako, alongside Sean Connery… not for the first time.

Honor also went on to find TV fame with The Avengers. Bowler hat and umbrella used as a sword The Avengers not Iron Man punching Thanos in the face The Avengers. A show where Honor played Cathy Gale, the first female partner of slick British spy, John Steed. Of course one can’t talk about Honor and The Avengers without mentioning…

Honor also appeared in the greatest TV show of all time Columbo, alongside the legend that was Peter Falk in the Dagger of the Mind episode. Other TV roles include Dr Who, Minder on the Orient Express, a spin-off from the British TV show Minder, Casualty and perhaps her most famous TV role (that wasn’t The Avengers), The Upper Hand. The British version of the popular US sit-com, Who’s the Boss?

Honor Blackman’s acting career continued through the 80s and 90s and even into the 2000s. 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary featured Honor Blackman and she also appeared in the comedy/zombie flick Cockneys vs Zombies in 2012. Her screen acting career spanned eight decades.

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Honor Blackman was my all time favourite Bond girl in the quintessential James Bond flick, Goldfinger (1964). There’s just something(s) about this particular Bond film that make it a classic.

Pussy Galore

You have the best actor playing James Bond with Sean Connery, then you have Bond iconography such as the Aston Martin DB5 with all it’s gadgets which has gone down in cinematic history. There’s the greatest Bond song of all time sung by Shirley Bassey and then there’s the bad guy, Goldfinger himself with that immortal comeback line…

“No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”

–  Auric Goldfinger

Finally, we have Honor Blackman herself as the greatest Bond girl ever, Pussy Galore. She was sexy, straight talking and tough. Her introduction to the film is stuff of legend, the greatest Bond girl moment ever.

That sultry smile as Bond wakes up, those deep blue eyes and of course, that raspy voice. Honor was amazing in Goldfinger and more than held her own against Sean Connery.

Honor died of natural causes aged 94 in Lewes, East Sussex on the 5th of April, 2020.

Honor Blackman 2

“I’m told leather drives men up the wall. I like wearing it because it because it feels nice.”

– Honor Blackman

Spam, Spam, Spam, Terry Jones, Spam, Spam And Spam

I really don’t think I can write anything that hasn’t already been said about Monty Python. A pioneering group of comedians who changed British, and indeed, the world of comedy forever. I could sit here and talk about things like the parrot sketch, the lumberjack song, silly walks, spam and all that… but it’s been done hundreds of times over already

The sad news of Terry Jones’ death, while upsetting, was hardly a shock. He’d been suffering from dementia for a while now. He was diagnosed with the awful disease back in 2015, or as he put it…

“I’ve got dementia, you know. My frontal brain lobe has absconded.”

–  Terry Jones

Yet even while on limited time and slowly loosing his humanity, his mind, his very person, he still remained active. According to Terry’s very close friend and fellow Python, Michael Palin, Terry loved to go for long walks, enjoyed a beer, loved watching classic movies and would talk as much as he could, right up to the point where the dementia eventually took over. Having lost family members to dementia myself, I know just how soul destroying it is.

Terry Jones

I can’t really remember how or when my love of Monty Python began, but I do remember my older brother having a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on VHS and us watching and re-watching it, almost to the point of it becoming religious. It was probably the first film that I recall that I could watch and watch, yet never get bored of it. I knew all of the dialogue by heart and would quote the film in every day life. I could re-enact scenes with pinpoint accuracy. Knew the lyrics to all the songs (“I have to push the pram a lot.”). I loved and still love the absurd silliness of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Of course, there were more Python films. The epicly funny and hugely controversial Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the bizarre Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. They did several live shows over the years including a reunion with all the remaining Python members in 2014, Monty Python Live (Mostly). This was where his fellow cast first noticed something was not right with Terry. He was known among his colleges to be fantastic at remembering lines. But during this live show, he had to rely on cleverly hidden cue-cards and a teleprompter to deliver his dialogue correctly and on time. If you have ever seen the show, then you can really tell Terry was struggling at times, yet he still did it for the fans and for himself.

Terry co-wrote and directed all of the main Python films, but his talents went way beyond just being part of one of the most famous and influential comedy troupes ever. He had a very successful TV and movie career outside of all the Monty Python stuff as a writer, director and actor. He wrote the screenplay for one of my all time favourite childhood films…

Labyrinth

Labyrinth, a wonderful melding of Jim Henson’s puppets, fantasy story telling and David Bowie’s codpiece. Loved this film as a child and still adore it today. You can really tell Terry wrote this one, the humour is there, it has that distinct Jones flavour and style. Terry also wrote and directed the overlooked Absolutely Anything. A fun comedy about a man (Simon Pegg) who is given the power to have/do anything he wants by some aliens… who are all played by the other surviving Pythons. It’s also the final film of Robin Williams.

Terry also loved history and wrote many books covering medieval history for children and adults. Terry Jones’s War on the War on Terror was a collection of articles and editorials published as a paperback condemning the Iraq War. He also wrote several poems that were featured in the long running Poetry Review magazine. In 2016, Terry Jones received a Lifetime Achievement award for his outstanding contribution to television and film.

There is just way too much to cover that this man was responsible for. His talent never seemed to end. He was funny, articulate, charming, clever and sadly, now gone.

I guess there is only really one way to bring this article to an end…

Life of Brian

Terry Jones 2

“I don’t think people who have children are acting selfishly or unselfishly. Having a child who’ll be loved, to parents who love each other, is the important thing.”

–  Terry Jones

The Film That (Probably) Killed John Wayne And Several Others

Hey folks. So first off and for my regular readers. I know I didn’t publish much on this blog last year. I was busy concentrating on other writing projects and that’s pretty much how things will be this year too. I made some great connections in 2019 and got my foot in a few doors, wrote a lot, published 2 books and almost finished a 3rd too, which I’ll be publishing in the next couple of months. Then I also have a few other big writing projects simmering away for 2020. So I won’t have the time to dedicate to this blog as I have in the past, but I’ll still be publishing a few articles through the year as and when I can.

And for my first article of 2020, I take a look at the film that most probably caused the death of one of Hollywood’s greatest acting legends, as well as other connected deaths and some interesting tit-bits about the film as a whole…

The Man

Marion Mitchell Morrison, a.k.a John Wayne, a.k.a The Duke. One of the all time Hollywood greats, a true tough guy known for playing heroic cowboys, cops, soldiers and much more. A multi-award winning/nominated actor, including winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963 for the film True Grit. A man with a worldwide fanbase that included my granddad. As a child growing up, I remember whenever we’d go round to visit my grandparents, granddad would always have his films on and 9 times out of 10, it would be a John Wayne flick.

John Wayne 2

It was the 11th of June, 1979 when John Wayne died of stomach cancer… but the fact he died of cancer is not that unusual. He was a heavy smoker and had a 6 pack a day habit. It’s the fact that more than 90 other people who all worked on the same film as John had developed some form of cancer and by 1980, 46 of those had died from the disease. That film was 1956’s The Conqueror.

The Film

I guess that today, some would call the film “racist” or “culturally inappropriate” due to the fact that white American actor John Wayne plays the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, complete with some questionable make-up to make him darker and appear more Mongolian. But even if we ignore the slight racism by today’s standards… it’s just not a very good film at all. It was critically panned when released and has gone down in cinematic history as one of those “so bad it’s good” flicks.

The Conqueror poster

Directed by Dick Powell, produced by Howard Hughes (yes THE Howard Hughes) and starring John Wayne along with Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz. The Conqueror is a hot mess of a film. From terrible miscasting to a nonsensical and boring plot, with some of the worst dialogue you’ll hear in a movie…

“I feel this Tartar woman is for me.”

– John Wayne

The Conqueror tells the story of Genghis Khan (John Wayne) falling in love with, Bortai (Susan Hayward). When Genghis Khan kidnaps Bortai, he kick-starts a war. Long story short, there’s some fighting, betrayal and Bortai ends up falling for the Mongol chief and they live happily ever after. As stupid as the plot is… it is loosely based on fact… very, very loosely.

As I said before, The Conqueror is a terrible film and is considered one of the worst films ever made and definitely one of John Wayne’s poorest flicks. It’s terribleness and being slated by critics at the time led to the closure of legendary production studio RKO Radio Pictures due to losing so much money. And if killing off a world renowned film studio was not enough, it could be argued it also killed off a lot of it’s cast and crew too.

The Cancer Controversy

And so we get to the meat of this article, just how can a film give more than 90 people cancer? Well it all boils down to where they chose to shoot the film… in the vicinity of a nuclear weapon testing site. Pretty much all exterior shots were filmed at St. George, Utah which was several miles downwind of the United States government’s Nevada National Security Site. The same location with a good chunk of nuclear fallout from testing during Operation Upshot–Knothole in 1953. And if that was not bad enough, then Howard Hughes paid to have 60 tons of the dirt from the site shipped back to Hollywood so any filming done at the studio there would match up with the location.

Operation Upshot–Knothole

The deaths include, but not limited to the film’s director, Dick Powell, who died of cancer in 1963. Co-star Pedro Armendáriz took his own life in 1963 after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1960 and learned it became terminal later. Other actors like Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer in 1974. Leading lady, Susan Hayward was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1974 and died after suffering a seizure in 1975. Then of course, there was John Wayne himself who died of stomach cancer in 1979.

And that was just the main cast and crew as many others also died from various forms of cancer by 1980 that worked on the film. Then there were cancer scares of people not even in the film at all. Both of John Wanye’s sons, Michael and Patrick visited the location where the film was being  shot and both of them developed cancer related conditions. Michael with skin cancer and Patrick had a tumour removed from his breast. Even Susan Hayward’s son, Tim had to have a benign tumour removed from his mouth. Plus other visitors had to be treated for cancer related illnesses.

Howard Huges

Then we get to eccentric business magnate Howard Hughes who was the main producer on the film. Well if you know anything about Howard, then you know he went a bit off the rails in his latter years… and that’s putting it mildly. He went completely bat-shit crazy. Becoming a recluse, living in a Las Vegas hotel for years and storing his urine in bottles were some of his more tame endeavours. While hiding away from public life, he bought the rights to The Conqueror outright and every single print of the film for around $12 million. He reportedly would watch the film on a loop day and night during his final years before dying of kidney failure in 1976.

Around 220 people worked on the film, an estimated 91 of them developed some form of cancer and a total of 46 of them died due to the disease. And those numbers don’t include visitors to the set or the Native American Paiute extras who also worked on the film but were not credited. So the cancer deaths could very well be higher.

I once read a review of a film where the critic made the jokey comment that the film was so bad that it gave them cancer. Well in the case of The Conqueror that claim could very well be true.

John Wayne 3

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

– John Wayne