What brought down this solid icon of rugged masculinity, individuality, and inner strength? John Wayne, one of the top box office draws for 3 decades, had the unfortunate opportunity to star in The Conqueror, which many believe sealed his fate as far as health was concerned.

The movie, a loser from the get-go, was conceived by billionaire Howard Hughes and depicted the Mongol Genghis Khan, portrayed by John Wayne, and his love interest Bortai, played by Susan Hayward. Critics panned the movie and were horrified by a wooden John Wayne posturing as a Mongol warlord. Moviegoers stayed away in droves, and the movie is often ranked as one of the poorest films of the 50s and one of the worst ever made.

Other performers included Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz. The film was directed in 1955 by actor/director Dick Powell and the exterior scenes were mostly shot near St. George, Utah, just 137 miles downwind of the US government’s nuclear testing site at Yucca Flats, Nevada.

Filming got off to a bad start as actors and crew had to deal with 120-degree heat, a black panther that tried to take a chunk out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood that almost wiped everybody out. But the worst of all was unseen. In 1953, the US tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, which resulted in very large clouds of fallout drifting downwind, with much of the toxic dust being swept into Snow Canyon, Utah, where “The Conqueror” was shot. All involved in the movie where exposed to the dust for 13 weeks, and later Hughes shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain for studio retakes.  

The filmmakers were aware of the nuclear tests but the federal government reassured residents that there was no hazard to the public. No one took the threat of radiation very seriously even though sheep and other livestock began to mysteriously die in large numbers. There is a picture of Wayne himself smiling and playing around with a Geiger counter.

Seven years after the release of the film, director Dick Powell died from cancer. Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with cancer of the kidney in 1960, and killed himself in 1963 upon learning his condition was terminal. Hayward and Moorehead died of cancer in the 1970s. John Wayne contracted cancer twice: in 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had his left lung removed, and in 1979 he contracted stomach cancer, which took his life. He felt his lung cancer was the result of his 5-pack-a-day, unfiltered cigarette habit.

There were 220 people in the cast and crew. By 1981, 91 of them had been diagnosed with cancer and 46 had died from the disease. Several of Wayne and Hayward’s relatives who visited the set had cancer as well. Wayne’s son Michael developed skin cancer, his brother Patrick had a benign tumor removed from his breast, and Hayward’s son, Tim Barker, had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. By 1986, half of the residents of St. George, Utah had contracted cancer. The actor John Hoyt, who was part of the cast, died of lung cancer in 1991.

Dr. Robert Pendleton, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, said, “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, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.” In fact, numerous members of the cast and crew, as well as relatives of the deceased, considered suing the government for negligence, claiming that it had failed to disclose the dangers.

Howard Hughes, who withdrew the film from circulation shortly after its release, was said to have felt especially guilty over the sad and tragic fiasco. For years, Hughes was the only one to see The Conqueror, as he screened it every night during his demented last years.

Had John Wayne not lobbied so hard to play Genghis Kahn, a part that was originally to go to Marlon Brando, he just might have extended his life by a few more years.