The Movie Filmed In a Nuclear Fallout Site
Almost half the cast of ‘The Conquerer” died of cancer — did radiation really play a role?
by Ryan Fan
It’s a film that is listed by John Wilson in The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.” John Wayne, one of the most famous actors in history, is cast as Temujin, who would be later known as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 10% audience score. On IMDB, it is rated 3.7 out of 10 stars.
What made The Conqueror such a bad movie?
The Conqueror was problematic for a lot of reasons. First off, couldn’t they have cast an Asian actor as Genghis Khan? Film critic, Emanuel Levy, goes as far as to call The Conqueror John Wayne’s worst film ever. Wayne, known as The Duke, is commonly regarded as the prototypical American western cowboy. The film was a box office failure, with a budget of $6 million and a box office revenue of $9 million. As to why the film failed, Wayne said:
“People wouldn’t accept me as Genghis Khan. I’ve been extolled as rough American personality, and they won’t take anything else.”
I understand that it was 1956, but watching the movie — I couldn’t help but laugh. It is comically bad and I can see why it has a 3.7/10 rating on IMDB — it makes Genghis Khan seem like an American cowboy.
The plot is about Temujin’s lust for Tartar princess, Bortai (played by Susan Hayward) and the efforts he goes to to win her love and her hand. He steals her away, leading to a war between the Mongols and Tartars, and the romance between Temujin and Bortai intensifies.
A particularly cringeworthy line in the excerpt, from Wayne, is “I feel this Tartar woman is for me.”
It is Mongol history turned western, and Howard Hughes, who produced the movie, wanted Marlon Brando to play Genghis Khan. John Wayne, however, jumped at the opportunity once he saw the script, and no one was going to say no to John Wayne begging to play a part in the 1950s.
Beyond the quality of the movie lies a more interesting and emotional story — the filming took place in a nuclear fallout zone. It would be a movie that Hughes watched endlessly until his death, and one that he tried to withdraw from circulation.
The story of why almost half the production crew and cast got cancer stems from the time. In 1953, the government ran Operation Upshot-Knothole, which included 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests from the Nevada National Security Site at Yucca Flats, Nevada.
They filmed in St. George, Utah, a town 137 miles downwindfrom the testing site. According to Cecil Adams, who ran a newspaper column calledThe Straight Dope,“immense clouds of fallout [were] floating downwind,” and a lot of it floated into Snow Canyon, where the movie was shot.
The actors and production crew shot in Snow Canyon for 13 weeks. Before shooting, however, Hughes was very worried about the radiation — but according to Karen Jackovich and Mark Sennet at People Magazine, the government assured Hughes and the residents of St. George that the tests had no risks to public health.
Jackobich and Sennet note that an astonishing 91 of 220 cast and crew members of the film contracted cancer. John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and director Dick Powell all later died of cancer. Co-star, Pedro Armendariz, who plays Jamuga, Genghis Khan’s right hand man, killed himself in 1963 after learning that he had terminal kidney cancer.
According to Robert C. Pendleton, the director of radiological health at the University of Utah:
“With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.”
Of course, there is reason for doubt. John Wayne smoked six packs a day and developed, in the words of James Bacon in US Magazine, “a lung tumor the size of a baseball.” The surgeons had to remove the Duke’s whole lung. Other cast and crew members were big smokers as well.
But Wayne’s sons were at the filming set — both Michael and Patrick Wayne developed skin and breast cancer respectively. They, along with other survivors on the set in 1980, were not anti-nuke activists by any stretch, but were simply mad about the government saying that there was no cause for concern. Jackovich and Sennet note the following:
“What angers them is mounting evidence that the government knew a great deal more about the danger of fallout from the tests than it told.”
But Michael D. Shaw, the Executive Vice President at the Interscan Corporation, a toxic gas detection instrumentation company, disputed the claim that the filming led to cancer for nearly half of its cast and crew. The National Cancer Institute says that approximately 38.4% of men and women will get diagnosed with cancer over their lifetimes. 38.4% of the 220 staff and crew members rounds to 84 people that would have been expected to develop cancer. Shaw notes some problematic elements of the People article — that the article didn’t mention the smoking habits of any of the stars.
Plaintiff attorneys who tried to file lawsuits for “downwinders” in the St. George area would be unsuccessful. Shaw would cite the work of Bruce Church, a health physicist, who established the Community Environmental Monitoring Program, and who disputes many of the claims of the Peoplearticle.
“All the science in the world cannot trump emotionalism and politics,” Shaw wrote.
The biggest sin of The Conquerer,in his opinion, was the miscasting of John Wayne, but no matter the truth or the science, the legend ofThe Conqueror will always rest in the controversy of the nuclear fallout zone and the possible link between the filming of the movie and cancer.