Hollywood’s Nuclear Fallout: ‘The Conqueror’ Film Linked to Outbreak of Cancer Among Cast, Crew

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The calamitous box-office failure known as “The Conqueror,” initially fumbled for its misjudged casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Now, in a more ominous light, it is remembered for a far greater debacle – one that involved atomic blasts, radioactive sand, and a cancer outbreak among the cast and crew.

Featuring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, “The Conqueror” was filmed in the backdrop of a nuclear test site’s residue in the Nevada desert, a year after Operation Upshot-Knothole set off 11 atomic detonations. Of the 220-strong team that worked on the movie, 91 were later diagnosed with cancer, leading to the untimely demise of 47, including the film’s leading stars Wayne and Hayward, and popular Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz.

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Unveiling this disturbing narrative, the recently launched documentary titled, “The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout,” delves into the recklessness and the government misinformation that alleged to have played spoilsport by stealing years from the lives of these Hollywood figures. The film also throws light on the affected “downwinder” communities residing close to the film’s shooting location.

The 1950s and 60s saw the Nevada Test Site, now known as Nevada National Security Site, conduct over 900 nuclear explosions, both above and below ground. By the summer of 1954, when “The Conqueror” was filmed a few miles downwind, the tally stood at 50 blasts. This brought the possibility of a lethal connection to the radioactive sand used at the site into question.

Although most of the cast were heavy smokers, à propos the time before the Surgeon General’s decisive 1964 report, the smoking excuse didn’t fully cover up the cancer rate, which was three times the national average. More tellingly, Hayward, Armendáriz, and director Dick Powell died of non-respiratory cancer in their 50s.

Meanwhile, the film’s decision makers were not entirely ignorant of the radioactive risks. The producer Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire himself, reportedly felt remorse for importing irradiated sand from Utah to the Hollywood soundstage. His guilt was posthumously echoed by the revelations following Wayne’s death in a People magazine report that spurred Utah residents to investigate their proximity to the Nevada Test Site.

The tireless efforts of these downwinders led to the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, championed by former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. This offered a reward of $50,000 to families in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona who could link their diseases to exposure to the nuclear fallout. An extension to the application deadline, however, was stalled recently due to perceived cost issues and lack of Republican support.

In this light, “The Conqueror’s” initial box office disgrace seems trivial beside the human toll it exacted. And in the nuclear shadow of its making, the film stands as a grim reminder of recklessness in an industry that so often prides itself on illusion and spectacle.