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The Film That Killed The Duke

How a Howard Hughes Dud & a U.S. Government Thud Killed John Wayne ...

~  By: Julian Spivey ~

Howard Hughes was no stranger to making bad films. His controversial 1943 western “The Outlaw” is considered to be one of Hollywood’s all-time bad films and is known more for its young actress Jane Russell’s ample bust than for the film itself.


However, it is the 1956 film “The Conqueror” that Hughes financed and produced that led to the death of one of Hollywood’s most famous faces and numerous others.


“The Conqueror” was a project from the mind of the famed billionaire Hughes. He envisioned the film as an historical epic on the life of Temujin, better known as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. Hughes turned to actor-turned-director Dick Powell to direct the film. Powell’s only other directorial experience was for the 1953 film “Split Second,” starring little known actors. Powell originally wanted Marlon Brando to play the lead for “The Conqueror,” but when John Wayne stumbled upon the script one day and decided that this was a role meant for him, the decision was made; John Wayne would play Genghis Kahn. It was a miscast role that would be an embarrassment to the career of one of Hollywood’s leading men, but also a decision that could’ve led to Wayne’s death of lung and stomach cancer on June 11, 1979.


The film would go down in cinema history as one of the all-time film flops. The storyline was nothing more than a poor attempt at a historically inaccurate love story between Wayne’s Temujin and Bortai, a beautiful princess, portrayed by Susan Hayward. It was obvious to everyone who viewed “The Conqueror” that this was not a film role for the Duke. After poor response to the film Hughes pulled it from public view until 1974. It is said to be one of Hollywood’s truly cursed movies.


On May 19, 1953, a 32-kiloton nuclear bomb nicknamed “Dirty Harry” was set off on a United States Government test site in the Nevada desert. The nuclear bomb was just one of over 100 to be fired on the test range between the years of 1951-1963. “The Conqueror” was filmed on location in the town of St. George, Utah, approximately 100 miles away from the Nevada test site. In 1953, when the “Dirty Harry” test was set the winds weren’t favorable and St. George felt effects from the radiation. Farmer’s felt the effects when their sheep and cattle begin to mysteriously die. However, when it came time to film “The Conqueror” a few years later in St. George the producers and director of the film were assured by government experts that the radiation levels were safe.


“The Conqueror” included many battle scenes that called for electric fans to be set up to blow dust and wind around to create the realism of a Mongolian desert. Scenes in the film also called for the actors to roll around in the dust and dirt. It wouldn’t be known until years later that the filmmakers were essentially blowing contaminated dirt into their actor’s and crew’s faces.

However, because the government gave the filmmakers the okay to go ahead and film at St. George nobody considered the location to be a breeding ground for cancer. To make matters worse there were still some shots needed to complete the film after the on location shooting was wrapped. To match the continuity of the location footage, Hughes had over 60 tons of St. George dirt shipped to a Hollywood studio to finish shooting, thus contaminating more people with radiation.


On January 2, 1963, the director of “The Conqueror,” Dick Powell, died from cancer of the lymph glands. Powell was 59. He was born November 14, 1904 in Mountain View, Ark. and had a very successful career in both film and television as an actor, director and producer.


Later in 1963, Pedro Armendariz, who was a notable figure in other Wayne films like “3 Godfathers” (1948) and “Fort Apache” (1948), as well as a loved star in his home country of Mexico, passed away. He had just finished shooting on the James Bond film “From Russia with Love” (1963) when he committed suicide by gunshot when he was notified that there was nothing that could be done about his cancer. Like Powell, Armendariz had lymph cancer. Armendariz died on June 18, 1963, at the age of 51. Within a year of each other the director and a major supporting actor of “The Conqueror” had succumbed to cancer.


Eleven years later on April 30, 1974, Agnes Moorehead, one of Hollywood’s greatest supporting actresses, passed away from uterine cancer. Moorhead had received four Academy Award nominations during her illustrious career for best supporting actress for roles in “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), “Mrs. Parkington” (1944), “Johnny Belinda” (1948) and “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964). Moorehead played the supporting role of Hunlun in “The Conqueror.”


Susan Hayward won the best actress Oscar in 1959 for her role as Barbara Graham in “I Want to Live!” (1958) just less than three years after her leading lady role as Bortai in “The Conqueror.” Hayward died of brain cancer on March 14, 1975, less than a year after Moorehead’s death. Hayward received four other Academy Award nominations for best actress during her notable movie career.


On June 11, 1979, one of Hollywood’s most famous faces and names passed away. John “Duke” Wayne died of lung and stomach cancer. Wayne starred as the leading role in “The Conqueror” and would be the last of the main players from the film to die of some form of cancer. Wayne played some of cinema’s most famous characters over his 50 year movie career including roles in some of the greatest films of all-time like John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) and “The Searchers” (1956). Wayne won his only Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (1969). His death at age 72 is one that rocked the world and left a gaping hole in it.


A report released in 1980, less than one year following the Duke’s death, revealed that 91 crew members from “The Conqueror” had contracted cancer and 46 of them (more than half) had died from some form of it. More than 50 years after the release of the poorly received film it remains in the spotlight as one that likely caused the death of many of the members who worked on it.


There are those who claim that the number of deaths could be related to the number of cigarettes certain members of the crew, including Wayne, smoked per day. However, while the tobacco probably didn’t help any, it wouldn’t have likely been the result of that many people’s deaths. Some also say that the number of deaths reported might actually be statistically accurate for any group of persons working in a profession during that era. However, doctors have reported that with a group of people that size you would expect only around 30 to develop cancer, as opposed to 91 with 46 dying from it.


“The Conqueror” likely goes down as the deadliest film in cinematic history. It is ultimately the Howard Hughes dud and the United States government thud that killed John Wayne.       


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