John Wayne

‘The Conqueror:’ The Tragedy Behind the Movie and its Connection to Oppenheimer

John Wayne's 'The Conqueror' became legendary; not only for its story but for the tragic events that led to the passing of half of its cast.

There’s no doubt that John Wayne is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. The Cowboy par excellence; almost all of Wayne’s movies were very well received by, both, the audience and the critic. Except probably for one, The Conqueror

The Conqueror isn’t only considered one of the worst films of the 50s, one of Hollywood’s most important decades in history, but also a cursed one. We’re not only talking about minor things like budget issues, delays, and several conflicts between its cast and crew; we’re talking about several deaths connected to its production. 

Yes, you read it right. But what does it have to do with Robert Oppenheimer? First things first…

The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 5 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer

John Wayne’s The Conqueror

Starring John Wayne, directed by Dick Powell, and produced by no other than Howard Hughes (the deranged pilot and film producer you saw in The Aviator), The Conqueror told the story of the bloodthirsty Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. 

Without delving into the problematic issues of casting a white actor in the lead role, the terrible historical inaccuracies, and the bad working conditions of the Native American extras, the movie was simply terrible.

Although most of the movie was set in the Gobi Desert, most scenes were shot in the Escalante Desert and Snow Valley in Utah. Now, why would this be shocking or be the cause of the alleged curse? And once again, what does this have to do with Oppenheimer?!

A Radioactive Desert?

Deserts are often seen as inhospitable and uninhabitable locations. It’s no coincidence that most government programs that deal with dangerous equipment are often conducted in deserts, and the US has a handful of large deserts. You might’ve guessed where we’re going. 

During the Manhattan Project, the government and the scientists involved selected several deserts in New Mexico to make atomic tests in 1945. After the war, they tried making these tests in the Southern Pacific Ocean to keep the secrecy; however, with the growing paranoid that sparked the Cold War, this Ocean wasn’t the safest place to try out nuclear weapons, so they shifted back to the US deserts to carry on with their work.

The Atomic Energy Commission, which Oppenheimer was a member of for some years, selected a territory in Nevada not only for the reasons we talked about before but also because its windy nature would help blow the radioactive “hazards” away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles. These hazards would end up going to the west, the home of ranches and Native American and Mormon communities.

Now, From 1951 to 1962 these programs detonated over 100 nuclear bombs sending lots of radioactive pieces and clouds of dust to Utah and Northern Arizona. Still, the government wasn’t worried about this, or better said, they did not care at all. More shockingly, they even promoted these as spectacles for the public and a patriotic activity! 

The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 3 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer

The Curse of The Conqueror

So, back to The Conqueror. As mentioned most of the outdoor scenes were shot in the desert of Utah, and even when it was 137 miles away from the testing area, the winds represented a peril for the cast and crew. In 1953, only one year before the shooting, 11 bombs were tested at the Nevada Test Site, so the production thought there would be no issue shooting nearby, not to mention that the government assured them they were all safe. Big mistake!

The movie was shot, it didn’t do badly at the box office yet it wasn’t great, and everything seemed fine for a while. But a couple of years later, the consequences of playing nearby radiation started to show up. Out of the 220 cast and crew members, it’s estimated that 91 developed cancer in the following decades. 46 ended up dying of the wide range of cancers they developed. 

If these numbers shook you, just think about the number of local civilians, mainly Native American and Mormon communities (known as downwinders), and the animals that were exposed for years to these radioactive particles! But back to the cast and crew.

The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 4 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer

Basically, all the main characters involved in the film fell victims of radiation. Director Dick Powell developed lymph cancer and passed nine years later, Susan Hayward passed of brain cancer in 1975, Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, who played Genghis Khan’s right hand, took his own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Of course, the star of the show, John Wayne, didn’t evade the curse, he died of stomach cancer in 1979.

Wayne’s sons, Patrick and Michael, who were often seen playing around during shots, also battled cancer, but unlike their father, they survived. As mentioned over 90 people that worked on the film ended up developing a type of cancer, and although many different things could’ve caused it, the coincidence is too big!

Not surprisingly, no one was held accountable for the deaths and diseases provoked by these government tests at the time. It wasn’t until the 90s that an act was issued granting some compensation to the downwinders that developed cancer and other diseases. However, legend has it, producer Howard Hughes felt some guilt and ended up buying all copies of the movie. It’s said he would watch it every single night during his last and reclusive years.

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