In June 1954, the Hollywood cast and crew flew to Saint George, Utah, to make the film. The Conqueror starring John Wayne. The film was directed by Hollywood veteran Dick Powell and produced by Howard Hughes. Wayne played the 13th-century Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan, who goes to war with the Tartars for the love of a princess. Of the 220 people who worked on the film, 91 developed cancer in his lifetime, while 46 people died of cancer. Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979.
Saint George is located in the northeastern part of the Mojave Desert. The area is close to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. It is also 137 miles from an atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nevada. Between 1951 and 1963, the US Army conducted above ground nuclear tests at Yucca Flat. The US government claims the area poses no health hazard, but TIME called Yucca Flat “the most irradiated, nuclear-explosive place on the face of the earth.”
Howard Hughes took over RKO Pictures in 1948. He developed a reputation for preying on young stars and supporting the hunt for communists in Hollywood. The first films made under him were panned by critics and did poorly at the box office. At that time, historical epics such as Julius Caesar Y the tunic They were in fashion. Hughes, in desperate need of a hit, greenlit a movie about Genghis Khan.
Wayne had one project left on a three-picture deal with RKO. The first two movies were horrible, Jet Pilot and Flying Leathernecks. Desperate to complete his contract, Wayne read the script for The Conqueror written with Marlon Brando in mind. Wayne loved the script. Director Dick Powell tried to talk him out of taking the part, but Wayne saw the script as a western and signed on. The idea of Wayne wearing yellow makeup, slanted eyes, and a Fu Manchu mustache was never a good idea. The resulting film is considered the worst film Wayne has ever made.
Hughes was responsible for choosing Saint George as the location. It has beautiful red cliffs and dust dunes that resemble the Asian steppes in Mongolia. Hughes knew that the location was downwind of a test site where 11 nuclear bombs exploded in 1953 in “Operation Upshot-Knothole”. The largest bombs were a 51 kiloton bomb called “Simon” and a 32 kiloton bomb called “Dirty Harry”. The winds carried the radiation towards Saint George and killed thousands of sheep. The Atomic Energy Commission blamed the sheep’s death on “unprecedented cold weather.” Hughes received assurances from the AEC that the area was safe. An AEC pamphlet stated: “His best deed is not to worry about the consequences.”
Wayne also knew about the tests. He brought a Geiger counter to the site as a joke. During production, temperatures rose to 120 degrees and winds kicked up huge amounts of dust. It was so hot that the actors were hosed down at the end of the day. When the location shoot was completed, Hughes arranged for 60 tons of radioactive soil from Utah to be shipped back to the Culver City studio for reshoots. (The soil was eventually spread around unnamed industrial neighborhoods in Los Angeles.)
Several years after filming, unusual medical conditions surfaced in the cast and crew. In 1960, actor Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer. After learning that his condition was terminal, he committed suicide. In 1963, director Powell died at the age of 53 from lymphatic cancer. Actress Susan Hayward contracted skin, breast and uterine cancer before dying at age 56 from brain cancer. Actress Agnes Moorehead has died of uterine cancer at the age of 74. Actor Lee Van Cleef died of throat cancer at 64. Actor John Hoyt died of lung cancer at 86. Wayne spent years battling lung, throat and stomach cancer before he died at age 72. your long-term smoking habit.
Family members of the crew who visited the set also had cancer scares. Two of Wayne’s sons, Michael and Patrick, visited his father in Saint George. Michael developed skin cancer while Patrick had a benign breast tumor removed. They both survived. Susan Hayward’s son survived a benign tumor in his mouth. By 1980, 41 percent of the cast and crew developed cancer, while 21 percent of them died of cancer.
Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, believed that radiation in the area was linked to the cancer deaths of those who worked on the film. “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic,” Pendleton said. “The connection between radioactive radiation and cancer in individual cases has been virtually impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size, you’d expect only about 30 types of cancer to develop. At 91, I think the link to his exposure would hold even in a court of law.” No statistics exist for the hundreds of Native American extras who worked on the film.
In the 1970s, the rate of leukemia in Saint George was five times higher than in the rest of Utah. Thyroid cancer cases in children were also higher in Saint George. Those affected came to be called “Downwinders”. In 1979, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored a bill called the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. President George HW Bush finally signed the bill into law in 1990. This provided amounts between $50,000 and $100,000 to people suffering from cancers determined by the National Cancer Institute to “develop after exposure to low-level radiation” . For 2018, more than 34,000 claims totaling more than $2.2 billion were approved.
In his later years, Howard Hughes felt guilty about subjecting the crew to the toxic wasteland of Utah. Hughes was spared from cancer, but spoke out against nuclear power before his death. In 1957, he spent $12 million buying each copy of the film to get it out of circulation. He watched the film often in the weeks before his death in 1976. In 1979, Universal Pictures purchased the film from the Hughes estate and made it available on video.