Sam Moffie’s To Kill the Duke may well be the funniest and most entertaining novel ever written about Hollywood and movie history. And Moffie is not afraid of casting some of Hollywood’s biggest legends — both in terms of movie stars, directors, producers, and films — for his plot and characters.
This time Moffie has penned a hilarious re-creation of the filming of The Conqueror. While I have never seen this 1956 film, as a movie buff, of course, I’ve heard about it. It’s reputedly one of the worst films ever made, although it had everything going for it that should have made it a hit — an all star cast, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead; being directed by Dick Powell, himself a screen legend; and being produced by Howard Hughes.
Moffie creates a fictionalized — but not too fictionalized — version of the film’s production, which is truly stranger than fiction.
The movie had some notable flaws. John Wayne as Genghis Khan just wasn’t believable; he refused to take voice lessons to pull off the role.
And then there is the location — Hughes purchased land in Utah from the U.S. government for $1 to film the movie. How could he get it so cheap? Because it was the victim of nuclear fallout from nearby government weapon testing.
In fact, most of the crew and cast would end up dying from cancer in future years, presumably from the nuclear fallout, and Moffie provides an extensive list at the book’s end of all the cast and crew (and fictional characters), detailing their careers and deaths.
I was impressed that Moffie even corresponded with one of the stuntmen while researching the book — of course, most of the cast and crew are long dead.
As if a novel about The Conqueror were not enough to please fans of The Duke and old movie buffs, Moffie mixes the Cold War into the story. The plot begins in the U.S.S.R. with Ivan, who is hired to work as projectionist to Joseph Stalin; not only does Stalin enjoy watching American films, but he likes to dress up like the characters in Westerns, and he has a desire to have John Wayne assassinated.
Before long, Ivan and some of his fellow Soviets find themselves in Hollywood, making their own films while they try to figure out how they can get close enough to John Wayne to carry out Stalin’s plan.
Moffie offers many surprising twists and turns along the way. I found myself checking online to find out what was true and what fiction, and I was surprised by how much was true, since as I said, the story behind The Conqueror is stranger than fiction.
I laughed out loud numerous times while reading this book. Some of Moffie’s humor borders on the crude, but most of it is just plain funny and slightly exaggerated. The crude includes Howard Hughes’ sexual efforts to find stress relief.
But even this humor is very funny; I only point it out in case it would turn off some potential readers. Other hilarious comical scenes include Susan Hayward’s obsession with raspberry lime rickeys that make her demand Hughes find out the exact recipe for her favorite drink before she agrees to be in the film.
Throughout the book the dialogue sparkles to the point of Moffie obviously enjoying himself so much that the plot slows down a bit, but I doubt most of his readers will care because it’s so funny.
My only real criticism of To Kill the Duke really has to do with the plot being a bit slow. Moffie has a lot of breaks between scenes, but he only has six chapters in a 355-page novel, and the chapters alternate between the Soviet characters and the Hollywood characters.
I think if Moffie had divided his chapters up more and alternated them more it would have made the book’s pace a bit stronger. There were also more typos than there should be, but these issues did very little to reduce my enjoyment of the novel.
I think No Mad remains my favorite of Moffie’s novels, but the concept and storyline of To Kill the Duke is really original, and while I haven’t read a lot of novels about Hollywood, this one is the best I’ve read.
For more information about Sam Moffie and To Kill the Duke, visit its website.