If you're not familiar with the Howard Hugh's disastrous 1956 production The Conqueror you're certainly not alone. Sporting John Wayne in yellow face (yikes!), some blatant, old fashioned misogyny, and questionable production practices (more on that later), distributing company RKO Pictures rightfully has buried this picture as much as they possibly could. I know I sure hadn't heard of it.

All that is about to change with the upcoming documentary aptly titled The Conqueror (Hollywood Fallout). I was lucky enough to catch the US Premiere at Cinequest and was blown away by the story it told. What started as what you'd expect from the doc in a breakdown of how The Conqueror came to be took an interesting twist.

The Twist? The devastating effects of nuclear bomb testing and rise of cancer to "Downwinders" in the United States because of it.

The doc investigates one particular element of the production pertaining to strong winds and an exuberant amount of loose dust from the large amount of horses used on set. The results? An uncanny amount of the cast and crew developed cancer, including none other than John Wayne. The doc takes it a step further, exposing the short sightedness and lack of attention towards cancer surrounding testing sights until John Wayne was diagnosed.

In a complete circumstance of serendipity I happened to see the upcoming documentary the same night Oppenheimer won best picture, and was appalled and fascinated by our equal obsession and lack of care surrounding Nuclear Warfare.

Below, NFS chats with director William Nunez about his film, including an exclusive Q&A after the Cinequest premiere.

The following quotes from William Nunez are edited for length and clarity.

How to Archival Footage Was Sourced for 'The Conqueror (Hollywood Fallout)'

How 'The Conqueror (Hollywood Fallout)' Uses John Wayne to Tell a Bigger Story

Susan Hayward in The Conqueror

RKO Pictures

"Well, I mean, one of the things I knew [is that] I couldn't do it alone—that's just humanly impossible. I had to get all of the [stock and archival footage] and research and find things. So I did employ an Archive Producer by the name of Carolyn Julyan. She was based in the UK and she was amazing. She sourced out all those newspaper headlines and A lot of the government footage.

My editors helped find some bits too, and they would pass things by me going, "What do you think of this? What do you think of that?" I go, "Great!"

What was interesting about doing this documentary with the archival footage was you get to write, so basically I was writing the movie as I was editing, so it was getting all these pieces of clay and starting to mold something. So I thought that was exciting and they kept giving me more stuff and more stuff and more stuff. And I was going, please stop. Please stop because we got to end this. But it was great and I learned quite much more than I ever thought I learned about nuclear testing or Hollywood of the 1950s.

Well, I was a director mainly. I directed mainly live television news, breaking news. I've done presidential debates, I've done town halls, all those horrible things that cable news does. But I also would do short form documentaries for [CBS and Bloomberg], produce 'em and things like that.

So I mean, just not by myself doing it, but listening to how anchors or presenters would ask questions of guests or politicians or analysts or experts or whatever. That's how I learned how to kind of frame questions. So that was a good training ground on how to do that."

Transitioning from Broadcast News to Documentary Filmmaking

"It was funny, neither. I transitioned from working in news to becoming a narrative director. So I finished directing a feature film and I lucked out in terms of, I finished shooting two weeks before we all locked down with COVID. So I had to learn how to edit remotely.

And I didn't even hear of Zoom until May [of 2020], and we locked down in March. But then my producing partner, Doug Waller, and myself we're going, well, what are we going to do next? We don't know what the future holds, how long this is going to last?

So I started thinking, well, let's do a documentary because that's what everyone's kind of doing now. And then I mentioned The Conqueror, which I always knew about the story about, and to delve into whether John Wayne and Susan Hayward and the director all died of cancer. And then from there, I started learning about the Downwinders and I said, they have to become equal parts of the story."

The Serendipity of Nuclear Fallout in Hollywood and 'Oppenheimer'

RDJ as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer


"Yeah, maybe our tagline should be, 'This is the story that Oppenheimer never dreamed of.'

I didn't even know Oppenheimer was filming when we were doing this, or Oppenheimer was a project that Chris Nolan was doing until we were a year into it. So yeah, it hopefully helps us because we're going to release the movie in June, so hopefully it'll benefit.

I wanted to do targeted small festivals or festivals with a good filmmaking audience, and Cinequest was one that fit the bill. I had a short film many years ago here, so that's why I thought of this place. And then I actually contacted the programming director, the head of the festival, and then he sent him a link and he loved it. And there you go. That's how easy that was, I guess.

No, no. I think, and it has that Hollywood element of it, this documentary plus kind of, this is the after effect. What's interesting too is that there was so many decisions I had to make. Like Lewis Strauss was a big figure in the early stages of my documentary, the character Robert Downey Jr. portrayed, he is kind of the villain in that movie and kind of the whole atomic testing. And I just, like I was saying up in the Q and A, the ironies of what happened then to what's happening now, can't be lost in terms of just cultural, political, the war stuff that couldn't happen, but the threat of war all the time and things like that.

So the more things change, the more they say the same, I guess. I don't know. So anyway, that was one of the things. So the documentary, even though I was flipping about, I'll never do another one again, I'm glad I did it. It was a lot of self discovery, a lot of discovering things."

Exclusive Q&A at the Cinequest US Premiere 

The Conqueror (Hollywood Fallout) is set to release this June from Blue Fox Entertainment.