The Hollywood legend John Wayne has been gone for 40 years, losing his life to cancer while he was 72. As Hollywood stars go, he was one of the biggest, but his stardom may have been the reason for his death.
In the year 1954, he was cast to star a movie named, The Conqueror. This movie was to be a biopic of the life of Genghis Khan produced by Howard Hughes, the aviator, and Hollywood had decided for some reason that John Wayne was the best fit for a Mongolian warrior and general.
After searching for suitable locations, it was decided that principal shooting would occur in Utah, near a US military testing ground. This was the US government’s atomic testing range, however. It is said that the radiation infected most of the cast and crew members of this movie.
By 1980, a report in People Magazine had stated that 91 of the cast and crew had gone on to be diagnosed with cancer. Of them, 46 have lost their lives, including the movie’s star, John Wayne.
Is it just a coincidence? People don’t believe it to be. There’s a high chance that the radiation around the atomic testing grounds was responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 people.
The Filming of The Conqueror
The Conqueror was shot in a location around St. George, Utah. This place is located on the southwestern edge of the state, which is 137 miles (220 km) from Yucca Flat of Nevada. At this site, the US government conducted nuclear bomb tests for more than a decade, starting from January 1951 to August 1963.
Counting the total as specified by the US government, there were a total of 928 underground and atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted over the site. Out of them, around 100 were atmospheric testing, spreading deadly fallout into the surrounding area.
The shooting for the movie, The Conqueror commenced in 1954. Only the year before, in 1953, there had been 11 atmospheric nuclear tests on the nearby testing ground, which were performed under Operation Upshot-Knothole.
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As per the records, two of these atmospheric nuclear tests were particularly disastrous and resulted in long-lasting radiation. These two nuclear weapons were named Simon and Harry. Simon was tested on April 25, 1953, and Harry was tested on May 19, 1953. They were 43-kiloton and 32.4-kiloton bombs, respectively.
To help you understand the amount of radiation it would have deposited, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was just 13 kilotons. After the explosion testing of Harry, it is said that the radiation spread all across St. George. Geiger counters detected radiation for hundreds of miles around. In some cases the readings were small, just 300 to 350 milliroentgens of radiation. In other cases the radiation levels were higher than the Geiger counters could measure.
But these were just the latest in what had become a man-made nuclear wasteland in the heart of America. The report states that the US government irradiated the surface soils to a level of around 150 million curies, through atmospheric nuclear tests, from 1951 to 1962.
The Conqueror was shot in an environment when the radiation testing was at its peak. There was less than a year between these highly radioactive tests and Howard Hughes assembling the crew and his stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Lee Van Cleef, John Hoyt and Agnes Moorehead, downwind of the fallout.
After the filming began in 1954, some of the crew members started to experience medical ailments. But they continued to shoot, and managed to wrap the location photography to the satisfaction of everyone.
However, studio scenes an potential reshoots were still required, and these were to be filmed in Hollywood, and in order to preserve visual continuity Hughes ordered 60 tons of topsoil and dirt shipped back to match the exterior scenes. And so the production took the irradiated soil with them, further risking exposure.
A Litany of Deaths
After the filming the movie performed well. But, in 1960, Pedro Armendariz was the first person to get diagnosed with kidney cancer.
In 1963, doctors confirmed that his condition was terminal, and in his despair he killed himself. In the same year, the director of The Conqueror, Dick Powell, also died due to lymphatic cancer. He was just 53!
The female star cast of the movie, Susan Hayward, suffered from multiple cancers, including breast, uterine and skin cancers. She lost her life in 1974 due to brain cancer at the age of just 56.
In the same year Susan died, Agnes Moorehead died due to uterine cancer at 74. Lee Van Cleef died in 1989 due to throat cancer, and John Hoyt died in 1991 due to lung cancer. By this point there were too many coincidences to ignore.
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The male lead of the movie, John Wayne, died in the year 1979; he was 72 at the time. Before succumbing to his cancer, he had been fighting off throat, stomach and lung cancers for several years.
By the year 1980, 91 of all 220 people who worked in the making of the movie The Conqueror had developed some form of cancer. In 46 cases the disease was ultimately fatal.
Howard Hughes showed immense guilt over his decision to film the movie at the testing site of St. George, Utah. Horrified by what had happened, he decided to buy every print of that film available in the market to ensure that no one would ever see it. He paid over $12 million to try and kill the movie
In this he was successful, at least in his lifetime. Howard Hughes kept the movie from circulating among people until he died in 1976. In 1979, Universal Pictures would buy the movie from Hughes’ Estate and make it available once again.
This incident cost many lives and is thought to have created extreme health issues even in the survivors. But it was not just those involved in the movie who were at risk. There is also the question of the irradiated soil.
As a result of bringing radioactive material into the heart of Hollywood, they didn’t just risk the lives of 220 people but an entire city. As of today, the radiated soil is now spread across an industrial neighborhood in California, where it is believed to no longer pose any danger.
The testing around St. George also affected the local area, and the people living there. Children were diagnosed with leukemia, and people were also dying. The government offered compensation to show regret, but most people refused it, calling it blood money.
And The Conqueror itself? Not a great movie.
Top Image: The Conqueror is widely considered to be not one of John Wayne’s best roles. Source: Reynold Brown / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri