Howard Hugh’s film, The Conquerer (1956) was a big budget flop and nearby nuclear testing was blamed for 91 or 220 of the film cast suffering from cancer in subsequent years.
One thing that can be said for legendary tycoon Howard Hughes: when he made a mistake, it tended to be an incredibly costly mistake. The film had a $6,000,000 budget, and a domestic gross of just $4,500,000; an almost textbook definition of a failed movie. Hughes felt bad enough about the mistakes on the film that he bought every existing print of the film for $12 million and kept it from view until 1974.
The Conqueror was a lousy film. It appears on several lists the “Worst Films of All Time.” It is a story based on the life of the Mongol warrior Temujin, whom history remembers as Ghengis Khan. Marlon Brando was the intended lead when the script was written. It eventually wound up in the hands of radio and movie star Dick Powell.
After ending his association with NBC Radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Powell began directing films. John Wayne was near the end of a three film contract with Hughes’ RKO Studios, and came to Powell’s office to review scripts. At some point, Powell left the office for a few minutes, and the Duke began perusing The Conqueror. He expressed enthusiasm for the project when Powell returned to the office. Powell would later comment “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”
Along with All American John Wayne cast as the Mongol leader, Susan Hayward came on board as a red-headed Tartar princess and the picture’s love interest. Very creditable supporting roles went to Pedro Armendariz and radio and film star Agnes Moorehead.
Work on the film progressed with a degree of enthusiasm that should accompany a blockbuster. Principle outdoor photography took place near St. George, Utah, during the summer of 1954. John Wayne went on a crash diet for his role. The local community was wildly enthusiastic at having a big budget film crew in their midst. The film used many locals as extras, including Native North Americans as horseback warriors. Hughes bankrolled the shipment of sixty tons of sand and soil from the area to Hollywood for use in retakes.
And then the principles began dying.
The St. George area was within 135 miles of the Nevada Test Range. Although no test detonations occurred during production of the film, 11 atomic explosions took place the previous year, including two exceptionally “dirty” above ground tests with high degrees of fall out. The dunes around St. George were natural collecting areas for wind-borne material, including fallout. The dunes were also the preferred location for many of the movies very dusty action scenes.
Actress Agnes Moorehead was one of the first to express concern about rumors over “radioactive germs” near the filming sites. Shortly after Agnes Moorehead’s final role in Radio Mystery Theater, Moorehead died of uterine cancer in 1972. Director Dick Powell died of cancerous lymphoma in 1963. Pedro Armendariz received diagnosis of cancer of the kidney in 1960, and committed suicide when his condition became terminal in 1963. Susan Hayward passed away in 1975 from pneumonia related to complications due to brain cancer.
When John Wayne heard about Armendariz’ suicide, he commented “I don’t blame Pete. I’d have done the same thing.” Wayne’s doctors diagnosed lung-cancer in 1964, which the Duke battled nobly. His entire left lung and four ribs had to be removed, and he was declared cancer free. He would continue to work, including a physically demanding role in the 1969 Cold War classic The Green Berets. John Wayne’s final film was the eerily prescient; The Shootist centered on an aging gunfighter suffering the ravages of cancer. Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979.
There were, of course, many other factors behind these cancer deaths than spending the summer of 1954 near the Nevada Test Range. Agnes Moorehead was a heavy smoker. Unfiltered cigarettes were as much a part of John Wayne’s screen persona as his Colt Peacemaker. However, of The Conqueror’s production company of 220 people, 91 contracted some form cancer by 1981 (Statistically, a group that size should see around 30 cases of cancer.) This number does not include the high incidence of cancer among the families of the stars who spent that summer in St. George. The residents of that area of Utah have an inexplicably high rate of cancer, as well.
The Conqueror was the last film with which Howard Hughes involved himself. The movie’s high cost was one of the final factors in the demise of RKO Studios. Along with another Cold War fable, Ice Station Zebra, it was one of the films that Howard Hughes watched repeatedly during the isolated madness of his final years.
More more interesting reading, see also: Atomic Radio