May 19th, 2024

‘Killing John Wayne’ author delves into movie controversy


By Dale Woodard on November 3, 2021.

Submitted photo - Former Coaldale resident Ryan Uytdewilligen recently released Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror.

After delving into the historical side of Lethbridge, a local author is now shining the spotlight on a little Hollywood history.
Coaldale native and soon-to-be Toronto resident Ryan Uytdewilligen recently released Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror.
The book delves into the making of the movie, The Conqueror, starring John Wayne and produced by billionaire Howard Hughes in the early-1950s, a movie shot near a nuclear testing site that allegedly resulted in the deaths of members of the cast – including Wayne himself in 1979 – as well as crew members in later years. 
“The thesis of it is that these people died from potentially making what is now remembered as one of the worst movies of all time,” said Uytdewilligen, who currently lives in Langley, B.C.
Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror hit the racks at the beginning of October.
“Everyone who I have talked to really hasn’t heard this story before,” said Uytdewilligen. “They’ve heard bits and pieces, so everyone is intrigued when they hear a piece for the story. It was filmed near a nuclear test site and it may have killed John Wayne or it was Howard Hughes’ last movie or it bankrupted his massive studio. There are so many different layers no matter where you’re coming from. There is just so much to take away from it, so I think people are just really surprised by the scope of the story.”
As ascertained by People magazine in 1980, out of a cast and crew totaling 220 people, 91 of them developed some form of cancer, and 46 had died of the disease.
The movie was shot in 1954 near a proving ground in Nevada, said Uytdewilligen.
“So they were in Utah at a place called Snow Canyon. At the nuclear test site, they did some tests during a windstorm and the nuclear fallout blew to this particular place where they filmed the movie and over the next 20 years about half of the cast and crew died of cancer and that includes John Wayne, his co-star Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendáriz and director Dick Powell and a lot of crew members.
“People died much later because it was a very troubled shoot,” said Uytdewilligen. “But it was this big, epic movie that Howard Hughes put all of his money into because he thought he could save the studio and big, giant epics were all the rage in the mid-50s.”
The movie starred Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.
“Which really wasn’t an historically accurate movie at all, because they used John Wayne as Genghis Khan in yellow face makeup and it really was an unflattering portrayal,” said Uytdewilligen. “He doesn’t change the way he speaks and it’s a very flat, wooden performance at the centre of this poorly-made movie.”
Uytdewilligen first heard about the story of The Conqueror in 2013.
“It was a friend of a friend of a friend who told this fact and it stuck with me,” he said. “I started slowly picking away at research and just wanted to know more. I started to unearth these little nuggets that connected the story because there’s so much that was written about it already, but not in the way I’ve done, just typing the whole encompassing story. Everyone either focuses on the nuclear side or the fact that John Wayne was in yellow face makeup. There were so many different factors that intrigued me that I wanted to read a book that was all encompassing or just do it myself.”
After five years of studying the story, Uytdewilligen approached a few agents in 2018, ultimately landing Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. as the publishers.
“Then I got to writing it. It was non-fiction, (so) you basically send a proposal and then write afterwards when you get the green light,” he said. “So I wrote the book from about August of 2019 and spent a little over a year doing it. Then it was another year of editing it and the publisher doing their thing and collecting images to be included. It was about a three-year process to actually get it to the printed page.”
Uytdewilligen said reader feedback has been that they either learned a lot from the story or they’re surprised it hasn’t been talked about much.
He also said he’s gotten a few negative reviews as well.
“People have said they weren’t convinced in the end that this was ultimately what killed John Wayne and the others. But it’s something we’ll never know. I would say it’s really up to you, the reader, if it ultimately played a role in their deaths or if it was complete smoke-and-mirrors and hogwash that has been blown out of proportion over the last few decades.” 
Meanwhile, Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon, Indigo, and Barnes and Noble. 
“I just got an email from the manager at the local Chapters in Lethbridge that he got a whole bunch in,” said Uytdewilligen. “I know where there are a bunch at Analog Books as well. So you can get the physical copy there.”
As for Uytdewilligen, his next chapter is taking him from B.C. to Toronto to further his writing career.
“I have a few more writing projects and a couple more books coming out next year, so I’ve been keeping busy.”

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