The Conqueror: Did this toxic movie give the cast and crew cancer?
Nearing the end of his life, billionaire film producer Howard Hughes had become a recluse. In fact, the 70-year-old hermit spent the majority of his last days hauled up in his Desert Inn penthouse lying naked in bed, aside for a pink hotel napkin. It was there in his darkened room that he would sit for weeks, refusing to bathe, to cut his nails or hair, or to even open the curtains. Instead, he chose to watch old movies on film reel, regularly playing two films in particular. The first was a private print of his favourite film, Ice Station Zebra, which he is said to have enjoyed immensely, once watching it 150 times continuously on loop. The second, however, was not a movie that Hughes took pleasure in. In fact, The Conqueror was more likely one he detested.
Despite the 1956 epic picture being one of the eccentric filmmaker’s own creations, it wasn’t a movie he was proud of. The film had been accused of whitewashing and was badly panned by critics, some of whom named it “the worst movie ever made”. Yet it wasn’t the film's standing in Hollywood that bothered him about it the most. It was the guilt of knowing that he may have been the producer who led dozens of people to their untimely deaths.
Tragically, it is estimated that of the film’s 220 cast and crew members, an astonishing 91 people contracted cancer following filming after Hughes chose to film just 137 miles downwind from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site where 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests had occurred a few years prior.
It wasn’t like Hughes hadn’t thought about the danger he was putting his cast in. Knowing it was likely that the site would be dangerous, him and his advisors had called on government officials to check out the situation. Having been assured by the Atomic Energy Commission that it was safe to film in the vicinity, the film producer had trusted the government experts and brought down his entire cast and crew for 13 weeks of filming. It was one of the biggest mistakes of his life and one that would haunt him until his death.
All in all, 46 cast and crew members died from the disease including lead actor John Wayne, as well as co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, John Hoyt and director Dick Powell. But it wasn’t only the cast and crew who were struck down by the immense clouds of atomic bomb fallout that floated downwind to the site.
The death toll of the radioactive site stretched far and wide with anyone who had visited the set at risk. John Wayne’s two sons Michael and Patrick, who had come to visit him on the Utah set, developed the deadly disease, as well as some of Susan Hayward’s relatives suffering from the radiation. And that’s not even including the scores of Native Americans who acted as extras.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing deaths that came from The Conqueror was the case of Pedro Armendáriz, a Mexican film actor who played John Wayne’s brother in the production. Whereas some of the film's victims had discovered their doomed fates quickly, it took Armendáriz 30 years to learn the truth.
When it emerged that around half of the residents of the Utah town of St George had been diagnosed with cancer and many of the area’s livestock had passed away, the veteran of the production knew he was in trouble. After being diagnosed with kidney cancer and learning that his case was terminal, he decided to spare himself the pain of a slow death and shot himself in the chest with the gun he smuggled into the hospital.
So can the dozens of deaths definitely be put down to the film? Could there be another reason, aside from the nearby nuclear weapons site for their deaths? Given that it has proved difficult for scientists to definitively link radiation with cancer, the subject has divided people in the past, with sceptics pegging smoking habits and unhealthy lifestyles as an alternative justification.
Statistically, the odds of developing cancer for men in the US population are 43 per cent and the odds of dying of cancer are 23 per cent, whereas for women it is slightly lower at 38 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively, so it could be argued that a fair number of cancer cases were to be expected throughout the cast and crew.
However, researchers have freely admitted that the number of people who died is unnerving. Dr Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, said: “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-odd cancers to develop … I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.”
So did Hughes actually have any understanding of the damage he could do by taking hundreds of people to the canon lands around St George?
According to various sources, there is evidence the film producer - who was spared cancer himself - suspected the risks of radiation. In 1925, he had founded a medical and scientific researcher institution and was reported to have displayed an abnormal interest in his own health, regularly exhibiting obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Although this certainly doesn’t prove his guilt, it also does not make him irreproachable.
In addition, daily extensive battle scenes were said to have taken place on set where electric fans were used to create a dusty, windswept look, meaning that the cast were caked in radioactive dust on a regular basis. There’s a chance they could have also digested some of the fine particles too; apparently food from the caterers was often hit by the same clouds of grime. Furthermore, when filming on location came to its end, Hughes transported 60 tonnes of sand from the site back to Hollywood to continue shooting, effectively meaning that an entire studio backlot was contaminated.
One hopes Hughes was a man fooled by irresponsible government officials rather than a director who decided to chance the lives of his entire cast, crew and their families for a movie that turned out to be a dud.
After news of the cancer epidemic came to light, the producer bought every single copy of The Conqueror for $12 million, pulling it out of circulation. It was then, in his darkened bedroom, that the unrecognisable maverick film tycoon would sit rewatching his movie on repeat.
Although we’ll never know what exactly was going on in his head as he watched The Conqueror over and over again, we can certainly guess. Ultimately, there’s no question of whether he paid for his mistake.