A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?

October 26, 1984

Dear Cecil:

My girlfriend says that half of the film crew and eight of the cast of the movie The Conqueror starring John Wayne died of cancer after an A-bomb test in Nevada. It can't be the truth — that many people — can it? Please, Cecil, give us the Straight Dope.

Cecil replies:

I'm horrified to have to report this, John, but your girlfriend's claim is only slightly exaggerated. Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada. The whole ghastly story is told in The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved. But let's start at the beginning.

The Conqueror, a putative love story involving Genghis Khan's lust for the beautiful princess Bortai (Hayward), was a classic Hollywood big budget fiasco, one of many financed by would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes. Originally director Powell wanted to get Marlon Brando for the lead, but John Wayne, then at the height of his popularity, happened to see the script one day and decided he and Genghis were meant for each other. Unfortunately, the script was written in a cornball style that was made even more ludicrous by the Duke's wooden line readings. In the following sample, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai: "There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you--and there are moments fer action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, 'TAKE HER!'" In the words of one writer, it was the world's "most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings."

The movie was shot in the canyonlands around the Utah town of St. George. Filming was chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, a black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out everybody. But the worst didn't become apparent until long afterward. In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which resulted in immense clouds of fallout floating downwind. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a lot of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of hot dirt back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes, thus making things even worse.

Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there's a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble. Actor Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after the movie was completed, and later shot himself when he learned his condition was terminal.

Howard Hughes was said to have felt "guilty as hell" about the whole affair, although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years.

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