In 1956, a film called the Conqueror hit theaters, and while it featured an all-star cast that included John Wayne; who portrayed the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and his co-star Susan Hayward, it considered to be a critical flop. In fact, it so badly panned by critics that it is often ranked as one of the worse films of the 1950s. And routinely shows up on lists of the worst films of all time.
Wayne was at the peak of his acting career when the film was first announced. After reading the script, he fought hard to land the film’s lead role. Retrospectively, Wayne is widely believe to have grossly miscast for the role. But that’s not the only reason why people look back on The Conqueror in a negative light.
It’s generally agreed upon by historians that Wayne’s involvement in The Conqueror directly connected to the reason that he passed away in 1979. But it’s not just him whose health and well-being severely affected by participating in the film. The Conqueror tied to the deaths of nearly half of its cast and crew members.
Join us as we investigate why The Conqueror has called the most deadly movie ever made.
Right from the start, The Conqueror destined to be a disaster. But people wouldn’t realize the frightening reason why until the damage had already done.
Hollywood had chosen to shoot the film, which funded by the rich, eccentric multimillionaire Howard Hughes in St. George, Utah. When they made that decision, there wasn’t really any cause for alarm with this small desert town. It’s known that there’s an atomic bomb testing site nearly a hundred miles away in Nevada. But the feds told the filmmakers that it’s completely safe to film there. So, it didn’t take long for the town to get flooded with cast and crew members who filled up every place of lodging in the area.
Everything felt fine, and production started quickly. If they had known that they were making such a dire mistake. They would have obviously selected a different location to film.
No one had a clue that one of the filming locations; which known as Snow Canyon, had become a radioactive hotbed. Just one year before filming commenced. A total of eleven atomic bombs had detonated at that testing site in Nevada. And air currents blew the contaminated fallout downwind to Utah.
To make matters worse, Howard Hughes even went out of his way to have some of the dirt from the site shipped out to LA to film realistic studio shots for the film.
Filming began in the summer of 1954, and the film cost about six million dollars to produce. At the time, it’s one of the most expensive films ever made.
The Conquerer directed by Dick Powell and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. So, this wasn’t just some kind of low-rent, independent production. If it were, then perhaps it wouldn’t have required so many cast and crew members involved. And thus, not as many people have harmed in the long run.
When location scouts first set their sights on Snow Canyon State Park; they thought that it would be the perfect backdrop for recreating the Gobi Desert. A grand total of 700 hundred locals employed to work on the film. And an estimated $750,000 pumped into the local economy.
So, at the time, it seemed like The Conqueror was nothing but good for St. George. Not only did the film bring jobs to the area but it was also bringing in all of that money. Local businesses desperately needed that boost, so nobody questioned whether or not it was a good idea.
While the film consider to be a box-office success. It all-but-forgotten about until 1979, when the rights to the film purchase from Howard Hughe’s estate so that it could aired on television.
But it’s not until 1980 that the grim reality of the long-term effects of working in a radioactive environment began to known. People magazine the first media outlet to report that 91 out of the 220 cast and crew members that had involved in the production of the film had contracted cancer.
By then, 46 of those cast and crew members, including Dick Powell, John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, and Susan Hayward, had already died from the disease. While it’s possible that some of these people might have contracted cancer due to lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking. It’s more likely that the radioactive fallout that came from that Nevada test site is what caused so many of the people that worked on The Conquerer as well as local residents of St. George to develop cancer.
The first crew member to die of cancer was Dick Powell; who passed away in 1963 after coming down with lymphoma. Susan Hayward died in 1975 from brain cancer, and John Wayne passed away just four years later from stomach cancer.
Pedro Armendariz committed suicide when he learned that he had kidney cancer. And Lee Van Cleef ended up dying of throat cancer.
A Doctor’s Take Says It All
Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, the director of radiological health over at the University of Utah, quoted in that telling 1980 People article as saying that he feared that the radiation in the area was in fact directly related to all of the cancer deaths of people that worked on the film’s set.
Dr. Pendleton further stated that just by looking at the numbers alone. It would have been possible to make a clear-cut case in court that working on the film was the cause of many of these poor souls’ fates. Pendleton also said that the case could even qualify as an epidemic.
While admitting that it’s impossible to attribute all of those cancer cases to the fallout radiation; he did point out that a group of that size would typically only expect to have about 30 cases of cancer develop naturally. With 91 cases, however, it’s pretty clear that they had harmed by filming at that location.
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Friends And Family Members Also Affected
Besides those that that worked on the film itself; many family members who came to visit the set during the production of The Conqueror also developed cancer. Michael and Patrick Wayne, for example, both had visited their father while he was shooting the film. Michael later contracted skin cancer, and Patrick eventually had to have a benign breast tumor removed.
Susan Hayward’s son also had to have a benign tumor removed from his mouth. Although he believes that it’s more likely caused by his smoking.
Howard Hughes, later on in his life; felt extremely guilty that his production company had indirectly caused so much harm to the cast and crew of his film. He had no inkling that the ground in Utah where they had filmed the movie was so toxic.
In the final days before his death, he secluded himself away and watched The Conqueror on repeat. Reportedly, he spent $12 million to buy every last copy of the film.
Wayne’s Career Unaffected By The Disaster
Even though The Conqueror a critical flop and likely resulted in the deaths of many of it’s cast and crew members, including eventually himself, John Wayne’s Hollywood career virtually unaffected by his involvement in the cursed film. He went on to star in hit films like Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo and El Dorado and The Green Berets – a movie that’s notable for being one of the only films made during the Vietnam War that actually supported the conflict.
Wayne also found success in films such as The Alamo, The Cowboys, and The Shootist – the latter of which was his last film. But perhaps his biggest role post-The Conquerer was that of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, which earned Wayne, his only Academy Award win for Best Actor.
Even though he had enrolled in an experimental cancer vaccine research study in an effort to ward off the disease, John Wayne died of stomach cancer at the UCLA Medical Center In Los Angeles on June 11, 1979. He interred in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Newport Beach, California.
Shortly before his death, Wayne converted to Catholicism, and he also requested that his tombstone would inscribed with the words Feo, Fuerte y Formal, which is a Spanish epitaph that means ‘ugly, strong, and dignified’.
John Wayne’s Waning Legacy
In 1971, John Wayne gave an interview with Playboy magazine where he expressed several highly controversial views. Not only did he say that he believed in white supremacy, but he also stated that people of color had essentially brought about their suffering and inequality by their own doing.
He further stated that the way that the Native Americans had treated by the colonizers of America was justified. Furthermore, Wayne used a highly pejorative term to refer to homosexuals.
In 2019, that interview resurfaced, and there were calls to rename John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. John Wayne’s son, Ethan, came to his father’s defense by stating that it would be an ‘injustice to judge’ him based upon an interview that was being, as he put it, ‘used out of context’.
These calls to rename the airport renewed during the George Floyd racial justice protests that took place in June of 2020. In July 2020, it announced that an exhibit dedicated to Wayne at the University of California would removed, citing that Playboy interview as justification for that action
John Wayne will likely always remembered as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was and still is a cultural icon, even though his legacy has recently come under fire. Regardless of his views, however, it’s regrettable that his death might have tied to his involvement with The Conqueror.
Do you think that John Wayne’s family and the family’s of the other cast and crew members of that film should compensate subjected to all of that radioactive fallout? Or do you think that it’s still impossible to prove that they contracted cancer as a direct result of working on the film? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
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