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John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and 90 other people developed cancer after filming “The Conqueror” near a nuclear testing site

Domagoj Valjak
Susan Hayward and John Wayne sitting together surrounded by unidentified actors in a scene from the film 'The Conqueror', 1956. (Photo by RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images)

Nowadays, no one in their right mind would choose to shoot a feature film near a functioning nuclear testing site. In 1927, American geneticist Herman Joseph Muller discovered that prolonged exposure to radiation can have crippling effects on human health, and by the early 1950s it was known that nuclear blasts produce massive amounts of fallout that is highly radioactive and potentially lethal. Still, the producers of the film The Conqueror, which was released in 1956, decided to shoot the film near the remote town of St. George in the Utah desert, merely a hundred miles away from the infamous Nevada Test Site.

Approximately 100 nuclear bombs of various yields were detonated at the Nevada Test Site throughout the 1950s. In 1953, 11 atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out in the area as a part of Operation Upshot-Knothole: The mushroom clouds were tens of thousands of feet high, and strong winds carried radioactive particles all the way to the Utah desert. In 1954, when the filming of The Conqueror began, the barren hills around St. George were likely covered with a layer of deadly nuclear dust.

The Conqueror, a film that depicts a turbulent love affair between a Mongol warrior chief named Temujin and the beautiful daughter of his worst enemy, features a stellar cast of John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Pedro Armendáriz. However, despite its high-profile cast and moderate box office success, the film was an absolute critical flop. Due to Wayne’s catastrophically bad portrayal of a barbarian warlord and Hayward’s underwhelming portrayal of his lover, the film was even listed as one of the 50 worst films of all time in 1978.

Poster for the film The Conqueror (1956).

Poster for the film The Conqueror (1956).

Wayne and Hayward weren’t too dismayed by the harsh comments of the critics of the time. They were both filthy rich and immensely popular, so they simply continued making films. Unfortunately, the fact that the film was shot in the vicinity of a nuclear test site is thought to have affected their lives in a lasting way.

Namely, out of 220 people who worked on the production of The Conqueror, 92 died of cancer, including Wayne, Hayward, and Armendáriz. At the time when the filming took place, the authorities labeled the filming site as safe from harmful effects of radioactive fallout even though abnormal levels of radiation were detected when the area was examined.

Wayne in The Challenge of Ideas (1961)

Wayne in The Challenge of Ideas (1961)

Still, modern research has shown that the soil in some areas around the town of St. George likely remained dangerously contaminated until 2007. Therefore, the fact that almost half of the cast and crew died of cancer likely wasn’t a coincidence but a result of prolonged exposure to radiation.

Wayne first suffered from lung cancer and then died of stomach cancer in June of 1979. Although many of his friends tried to convince him that his condition was a result of exposure to radiation on the set of The Conqueror, he claimed that the illness was caused by his deadly habit of smoking six packs of cigarettes per day. However, Wayne’s sons Patrick and Michael, who visited the set in 1954 and played with Geiger counters around contaminated rocks, both developed benign tumors that had to be surgically removed.

Susan Hayward won her first and only Academy Award in 1958, two years after The Conqueror was released, for her role as a death row inmate named Barbara Graham in the influential film I Want to Live!. Fifteen years later, her career abruptly ended when she was diagnosed with brain cancer, which also likely resulted from exposure to high levels of radiation. She died 1975, at the age of 57.

Publicity photo of Susan Hayward

Publicity photo of Susan Hayward

The Conqueror was produced by none other than the famous producer and business magnate Howard Hughes. In the early 1970s, Hughes realized that the people involved in the production of the film were dying. Since he was the person who approved the filming at the site near the town of St. George, and since he knew that the site was potentially dangerous, he felt so guilty that he paid $12 million to buy all existing copies of the film.

Related story from us: While filming “The African Queen” everyone fell sick from drinking the water except for Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who drank whiskey

Although it cannot be definitively proven that the cancers that killed half of the cast and crew of The Conqueror were linked to the shooting location, experts argue that so many cases of the deadly illness among people who worked on the set cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence.