The story of the 1956 film The Conqueror is among the most shameful in the history of Hollywood. The big-budget would-be blockbuster featured an epically miscast John Wayne as the 13th century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan
It’s not just that Genghis Khan had a southern drawl, no that’s bad enough. The worst part is The Conqueror nearly killed half its cast.
One of the last films produced by the famously eccentric businessman Howard Hughes, The Conqueror was a critical laughing stock and a commercial failure. In his later years, Hughes reportedly bought up every print of the film he could find, and obsessively watched it nearly every evening in his private screening room. Why? Some speculate it was out of guilt over the decision to film The Conqueror in a nuclear fallout zone.
Yes, it’s true. The Conqueror was filmed on location outside the dusty, sleepy town of St. George, Utah, which lay about 100 miles downwind of the U.S. Government’s nuclear test zone. In 1953 alone, the government ran 11 nuclear tests there, assuring the residents of St. George that there was no danger from the radiation.
They were wrong.
Between 1954, when The Conqueror filmed in St. George, and 1981, no fewer than 91 of the production’s 220 cast and crew contracted some type of cancer. And that number doesn’t include incidents of cancer among family members who also spent the summer on the set. At the time, it was thought the location was safe, so even Wayne himself brought his sons Patrick and Michael for an extended visit both later developed cancer. At one point, a Geiger counter was brought to the set, but it gave off so much noise that Wayne assumed it was malfunctioning.
But it wasn’t, and the cast and crew soon began to suffer the effects. Wayne’s co-star, Pedro Armendariz, developed kidney cancer in 1960, and took his own life in 1963 after being given a terminal diagnosis. That same year, director Dick Powell succumbed to cancerous lymphoma.
Another of Wayne’s co-stars, veteran stage and screen actress and four-time Academy Award nominee Agnes Moorhead, passed away from uterine cancer in 1972, and Kahn’s love interest Susan Hayward died of pneumonia brought on from complications due to brain cancer in 1975. Keep watching the video to learn about the movie that accidentally killed almost half of its cast.