The Conqueror is one of those legendary cursed Hollywood movies. It was a bad idea from the start. The brain child of eccentric billionaire and aviator Howard Hughes, the historical epic cast John Wayne as Temujin aka Genghis Khan. It was doomed for failure.
Box office crash and critical derision aside, The Conqueror has a more troubling legacy. Its main players seemed to kick the bucket early. Veteran character actors Pedro Armendariz (suicide) and Lee Van Cleef (natural causes) were causalities. However it was the deaths of the three leads and its actor turned director that raised eyebrows. Susan Hayward, Dick Powell, Agnes Moorehead and the duke himself, John Wayne, all died from cancer.
Was this a macabre coincidence or was there some other factor? Something that not only affected the cast and crew of the movie, but involved everyone in the southern Utah area it was filmed
In 1954 St. George buzzed. Two hundred cast and crew members had arrived to begin work on the big budget Hollywood feature. Hughes had decided to film the epic story of Genghis Khan under the aegis of his recently acquired RKO studios and the dusty climes of southern Utah would fill in nicely for Mongolia.
The rural Utah townsfolk weren't use to having such tinsel-town luminaries invade their drab agricultural lives. Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Dick Powell (the director) and John Wayne would be hanging with the commoners. Hollywood dollars would be flowing into the small community. It took the town's mind off of other problems that had sprung up recently.
Atomic Bombs and Dead Sheep
Local prospectors had been reporting finds on their geiger counters that indicated large caches of uranium. The problem was that once they began digging, the uranium never turned up. Also, local ranchers had been suffering a spate of mysterious livestock deaths.
The "Dirty Harry" bomb. A 32 kiloton device exploded May 19, 1953. This is the bomb suspected of tainting "The Conqueror" location in Snow Canyon.
Many suspected it may be due to the atomic bomb tests a short distance away at Yucca Flats in Nevada. However, the feds assured locals the tests were perfectly safe. Any fallout would be minimal and dissipate quickly. And everyone knows the government would never lie to its own citizens. That would be unethical.
On may 19, 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission set off "Dirty Harry," a 32 kiloton nuclear device about 100 miles away from St. George. The bomb was one of 126 test fired on the Nevada range from 1951 to 1963. Unfortunately for Cedar City and St. George residents, the winds were particularly bad for this test. What no officials admitted was that St. George had been pummeled by 1230 times the permissible fallout level and had stayed that way for an alarming 16 days! Sheep begin to die. Cattleman were alarmed. The AEC gave Utah Congressman Douglas Stringfellow a tour of the 1350 square mile test site. Good lackey that he was, Stringfellow told residents the tests posed no danger to the citizens of southern Utah. We had to keep the world safe from Communism.
When producers considered shooting The Conqueror in southern Utah they were concerned about about nuclear fallout. Government experts assured Powell and the producers that radiation levels were safe. The scriipt called for several giant battle scenes. Electric fans were set up to insure the fight scenes had a certain dusty, wind-blown realism. The film-makers certainly did not want blast their cast and extras with irradiated dirt.
Hayward brought her nine-year-old twins. Wayne arrived with his two sons, Michael and Patrick. The shooting schedule called for almost daily battles. Cast and extras rolled in the dirt, and were hit by dust clouds from the giant wind machines. It was such a constant that the food provided by craft services (a kind of traveling cafe for the crew) was coated with dust. That damned dirt got everywhere.
Because the government had given the area its seal of approval, no one worried about what the soil, that seemed to work its way into the hair, clothing and bodies of everyone working on the film, contained. Strontium 90, cesium 137, radio iodine, and plutonium were just not things one considered while making a Hollywood blockbuster.
There were still some shots needed to complete the movie after shooting in St. George finished. To match the location shots, Hughes shipped over 60 tons of Utah dirt to Hollywood, contaminating some Los Angeles studio.
The premiere of The Conqueror unfolded before the unbelieving eyes of the nation. The critics hooted at the laughable spectacle of John Wayne posturing as the tartar warlord. Filmgoers stayed away in droves. Hughes, indignant at the philistines reaction to his epic, pulled the movie from theaters. The film remained unseen except by the crazed aviator. Hughes, in his madness and hidden from the world, sat in his secluded Las Vegas sanctuary screening the movie on an almost daily basis.
So that's how it would have remained; a forgotten, ill-conceived movie vaguely remembered by the unlucky few who had forced themselves to sit through it during its initial release. A single blemish in the fifties during the golden age of John Wayne. However, twenty-five years after its making, certain information would come before the public that would bring The Conqueror back into the limelight. Facts that showed the fallout (literally) from The Conqueror went tragically far beyond the simple consequences of a truly bad movie.
Folks Start Dying
Pedro Armendariz had been a familiar face to Americans for many years. He had co-starred with John Wayne in the Three Godfathers and Fort Apache. He was also a bone fide star in his native Mexico. Early in June 1963, Armendariz had finished shooting one of his most memorable roles as Karim Bey in the second James Bond movie From Russia With Love. He was guest of honor at a June 9 party given by the film producers. Nine days later, Armendariz shot himself in his bed at the UCLA Medical Center. The actor had committed suicide rather than face a protracted death from lymph cancer. Armendariz had also co-starred with John Wayne in The Conqueror.
His was not the first cancer death related to the film. Six months earlier, Dick Powell had succumbed to stomach cancer. The popular actor had served as director on The Conqueror. He was producing the popular TV show that bore his name at the time.
Many deaths were to follow. Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer in 1974. Susan Hayward contracted brain and lung cancer in 1972. She would battle the disease until finally dying in 1975.
John Wayne spent many years battling lung cancer. He had his first cancer operation in 1964. Having thought he beat "the big C," the Duke would go onto to make films for a decade and a half. Ironically, his last film was "The Shootist." Made in 1976, it was the story of an aging gunfighter who discovers he has cancer. Wayne finally gave up the ghost on June 11, 1979, the last of the major players from "The Conqueror."
At first, no one gave these deaths a second thought. Wayne had smoked four packs of unfiltered Camels a day, while Hayward had a two-pack-a-day habit. However, the release of AEC documents through the Freedom of Information Act shed more light on the cause of all these cancer deaths.
The southern Utahn downwinders suit against the AEC caused people to take a second look at "The Conqueror." A 1980 report revealed 91 crew members had contracted cancer, about half of them had died from the disease. This didn't take into account the indian extras that had subbed for the Mongol horde. No one has ever studied their cancer death rate.
Twenty-six years after its making, "The Conqueror" was back in the news.
Did Utah Kill John Wayne?
Is the beehive state responsible for John Wayne's death? Certainly, its irradiated dirt may have had something to do with it. But if Utah is the killer, it has plenty of accomplices.
Howard Hughes is a major suspect. Memos from Hughes seem to indicate that he was aware of the risks of shooting in the shadow of Nevada's Yucca Flats testing range. Many theorize the guilt he felt from that film may have contributed to his paranoia over the Nevada atomic bomb tests. Hughes was a vigorous opponent of the tests and spent considerable cash to get them stopped. He was one of the bigger thorns in the AEC's side.
R.J. Reynolds shoulders a large portion of the blame. Four packs of cigs per day couldn't have helped the Duke's health.
The Atomic Energy Commission may be the main villain in all of this. They spent years covering up any culpability in the alarming cancer rates around the Yucca Flats test range. They have only ever accepted a grudging responsibility for the epic suffering of Nevada and Utah downwinders despite overwhelming evidence of the sickness and death the tests caused. Over 15,000 cancer deaths could be related to the 11 years of open air atomic bomb tests in Nevada, according to a recent Department of Health report. Another 20,000 non-fatal cancer cases may also be related.
The toll was not only among the stars of "The Conqueror." Wayne's sons, Michael and Patrick also developed health problems that may be related to the tests. Patrick had a benign tumor removed and Michael suffered, but recovered from skin cancer. Both were instrumental in setting up the John Wayne Cancer Institute. On April 5, 2003, Michael Wayne died following a operation. He had the disease Lupus. "The Conqueror" death toll keeps mounting.