THE CONQUEROR CURSE
Many people from the same film dying off?
Not really that common.
The only thing this movie conquered was its own cast and crew.
The Conqueror, which was released 60 years ago today, was a mediocre performing CinemaScope film released in 1956 (but was two years in the making). It was produced by Howard Hughes, directed by Dick Powell, and written by Oscar Millard.
It starred John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (yes, you read that correctly) and co-starred Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz.
During the Korean war era, several above ground atomic tests were run at the Yucca Flats government-run testing area in Nevada from 1951–1953. That included 11 tests specifically in 1953 under the name “Operation Upshot-Knothole.” Principal photography of the movie was shot from May-August of 1954 in Snow Canyon State Park, located 11 miles (18 km) northwest of St. George, Utah. Snow Canyon is 137 miles (220 km) downwind of Yucca Flats.
Nuke tests run in 1953, and filming in the same area the very next year? Wow, the "upshot" of this "knothole" was that they were not only dosed with radiation, they were dosed with some very fresh radiation!
Making matters worse, after the cast and crew spent many difficult weeks at the site, Hughes also shipped 60 tons of that same radiated dirt to a Hollywood back lot in order to match the Nevada-Utah terrain and lend more realism to studio re-shoots.
So they were exposed to the stuff both on location and later at the studio. (Because, you know, California dirt could never look the same as dirt from another state. Huh?!) While the filmmakers had heard about the nuclear tests, the federal government assured them and local residents alike that the tests caused no hazard whatsoever to public health.
The first shoe to drop was owned by Powell, with a whole shoe store to follow. He died of brain cancer in January 1963, seven years after the film's release.
Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960, and after learning of his condition being terminal, he shot himself.
Hayward, Wayne, and Moorehead also all died of cancer in the 1970s. Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991.
Skeptics of "the Conqueror cancer curse" position point to other factors, such as the wide use of tobacco among the cast and crew. They note that Wayne and Moorehead in particular were heavy smokers. Wayne said he thought his lung cancer to have been the result of his several-packs-a-day cigarette habit, but he ultimately died of stomach cancer.
But since cigarette smoking was much more widespread back in the day, why has no other collection of film stars or crew from any other film in history ever shown cancer rates even close to those who worked on The Conqueror?
The cast and crew totaled 220 people. As ascertained by People magazine (by the end of 1980), already 91 of them had developed some form of cancer, and 46 had died of the disease. Several of Wayne and Hayward's relatives also had cancer scares after visiting the set. Michael Wayne died in 2003 of cancer, after visiting his father on the set at age 22. His brother Patrick had a benign tumor removed from his chest, and Hayward's son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth.
Naysayers claim those are close to average stats, but also neglect to mention such major factors as the following: The extreme eagerness of the state of Nevada to promote filming in their area, assuring everyone with a Hollywood checkbook that things couldn't be safer. Yes indeed, it could be wagered that this is the same line Nevada gave to the original film scouts for The Conquer back in the 1950s.
Also to be factored in is the extreme shortness of time between the first radiation exposure and death of so many of them - just 10 to 15 years. Most such passings (from radiation, asbestos, etc.) usually take decades. Not only that, but it sure is strange that the naysayers so-called "smoker's cancer" usually did not attack the lungs in these cases, but just about everywhere else - brain, stomach, kidneys, etc. - like radiation does.
Reportedly, Hughes felt very guilty about his decisions regarding the film's production, particularly over the decision to film at a hazardous site. So much so that he bought up every print of the film for $12 million and kept it out of circulation for many years, until Universal Pictures purchased the film from his estate in 1979. The Conqueror, along with Ice Station Zebra, is said to be one of the films Hughes watched repeatedly during his final years.
Dr. Robert Pendleton, then a professor of biology at the University of Utah, is reported to have stated in 1980, "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 cancer cases, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law."
Several cast and crew members, as well as relatives of those who died, tested the legal waters regarding suing the government for negligence, claiming the military brass and political big shots knew more about the hazards in the area than it let on.
Statistically, the odds of dying from cancer for men in the U.S. population are 23% (slightly lower in women at 38% and 19%, respectively). Because the primary cast and crew numbered about 220, and a considerable number of cancer cases would be expected, controversy exists as to whether or not the actual results are attributable to radiation at the nearby nuclear weapons test site.
The number crunching in this case usually does not also include the extras and other people involved in filming. Numerous American Indians who served as Mongolian warriors contracted cancer in later years.
It is worth noting, however, that although many years have passed since the era of The Conqueror, if it could be proven in court that the government lied about the radiation dangers involved in that situation, it would be considered the same as murder. And there is no statute of limitations on that particular crime.
However, it's abundantly clear that neither the powerful government of Nevada nor the Feds ever had the slightest intention of paying a dime for damages.
Considering this medical mess and it's dismal courtroom chances, was the whole miscast and badly written production even worth doing in the first place?
Even strictly in the profit category, it cost 6 million to make, and ticket sales were 9 million, which means a profit of a quick 3 million. A tidy sum, but nothing to write home about. And quality-wise not only was The Conqueror artistically no Gone With The Wind, but today it's regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.
It never even became known as one of those "cult classic" clunkers, though, like Plan 9 From Outer Space.
So what of the cancer controversy of The Conqueror curse? It would have to be concluded that the whole project wasn't really worth it at all.
But the loopy legend of it will continue for many more years - just like deadly radiation.