The Hollywood Movie That Killed Nearly Half its Cast and Crew

In Hollywood, miscasting is a fact of life. The reasons why an actor might be cast in a role for which they are ill-suited are many and varied. Sometimes the actor just happens to be incompatible with the director or their co-stars, or a rushed schedule or personal problems interfere with the delivery of an effective performance. In other cases a star is so popular that the producers bank on their name alone drawing an audience regardless of how suited they are to the role, while in yet others the actor is so passionate about a particular role that they use all their clout and influence to secure it for themselves.

The latter appears to have been the case with 1956’s The Conqueror, a Howard Hughes-produced historical epic about the life of Mongolian warlord and Emperor Genghis Khan. The A-list actor who strong-armed his way into the lead role was none other than Marion Morrison, better known by his stage name, John Wayne. Yes, that John Wayne. But before you laugh, we must remember that the history of film is full of seemingly bizarre casting choices that turned out to be unexpectedly brilliant. And there is no doubt that Wayne could act; 13 years later he would win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Marshal Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit. According to his co-stars, Wayne felt such a deep personal connection to the Mongol warlord that he read every book he could find on him and spent hours every day working on his voice, posture, and mannerisms to exactly match the – just kidding: Wayne just slapped on some dark makeup, a Fu Manchu moustache, and played the role like, well, John Wayne.

To say Wayne’s performance is painful to watch would be an understatement the size of the Mongol Horde, with the Duke delivering lines such as “There are moments for wisdom, Jahmuga, then I listen to you–and there are moments for action — then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, ‘TAKE HER!’” in the same drawl and wooden intonation as his classic Western heroes.  The farce was not lost on contemporary reviewers, with one noting that Wayne’s was the“most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings.” The film is widely considered to be among the worst ever made, with Wayne winning a posthumous Golden Turkey award for his performance. Soon after its release Howard Hughes pulled The Conqueror from circulation, and reportedly watched it on endless loop suite during his last reclusive years holed up in his Las Vegas hotel.

But as painful as the film is to watch, it was infinitely more painful for those who made it, and for many of the cast and crew the production would ultimately prove fatal. In order to depict the Mongolian steppe, much of The Conqueror was shot on location around St. George, Utah, which happened to be 137 miles or 220 kilometres downwind of the Nevada Test Site, where just three years before the United States Government had detonated 11 nuclear weapons as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole. Snow Canyon, another shooting location, was particularly contaminated, as wind conditions caused large amounts of radioactive dust to gather there. While producer Howard Hughes was aware of the fallout, the Government assured him that it posed no hazard to public health. Location shooting carried on for 13 gruelling weeks, after which Hughes had 60 tons of soil from St. George trucked to Hollywood so that the studio shots would match the location footage – further exposing the cast and crew to radioactive contamination.

The results were predictable and tragic. Over the next 25 years, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members – a full 41% – would develop cancer, with 46 dying of it – including director Dick Powell and stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Lee Van Cleef, and even the Duke himself. Though Wayne and many of his costars were heavy smokers, making it difficult to directly tie any one case to the shooting location, the fact that the overall cancer rate among the cast and crew is nearly three times what would ordinarily be predicted makes the connection grimly conclusive.

Another prominent victim of the production was Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, who in 1963 discovered he had terminal cancer in his kidney and neck. At the time he was engaged in the filming of the James Bond film From Russia With Love, and while at first the producers tried to replace him, Armendáriz fought tooth and nail to complete the filming in order to secure residuals for his family, arranging for the shooting schedule to be changed to complete his scenes first. The pain he endured is evident in the finished product, with Armendáriz visibly limping in most scenes. But the effort was evidently worth it, as his character Kerim Bey is often cited as a highlight of the film. On June 18, 1963, three months before the release of From Russia With Love, Armendáriz took his own life at UCLA Medical Center using a gun he smuggled into his hospital room.

While the tragic story of The Conqueror touches on many serious issues such as Government accountability, the dangers of Cold War paranoia, and the folly and excess of Hollywood, perhaps the most upbeat lesson we can draw from the affair is that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. No matter how bad the finished product, we must always remember that a small army of dedicated artists sweated and toiled – and sometimes even suffered and died – to bring it into existence.

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Bonus Facts:

For our first Bonus Fact of the day, ever wonder why movie trailers are sometimes called that when they typically appear before a movie? Well, wonder no more. It turns out, the first movie trailers occurred not at the beginning of the films, as they do today, but rather at the end of the films.

The first known movie trailer to appear in a theater was in November of 1913.  It was made by Nils Granlund, advertising manager of Marcus Loew theaters in the United States.  The trailer was for the musical The Pleasure Seekers, which was shortly to open on Broadway.  In this trailer, he included short clips of rehearsals of the musical.   This idea caught on and trailers began appearing routinely after films.  This was particularly the case with cartoon shorts and serials that would often end in climactic situations where you needed to watch the next episode in the serial or cartoon to see what would happen.  Thus, these trailers, in particular that advertised the next episode, made a lot more sense at the end of the serial or cartoon than at the beginning.

However, it didn’t take long for movie studios to realize that full film advertisements would be a lot more effective if they showed up before the movie, instead of after, and by the end of the 1930s the switch had been made.  Despite the industry’s sincerest attempts over the last 60 or 70 years to get the name changed from “trailers” to some form of “previews”, among industry professionals and English speaking audiences the world over, “trailer” is still common, though “previews” has steadily been making progress at replacing the term.

Incidentally, while the first known trailer to appear in a theater was that listed above, Lou Harris, an executive at Paramount in the 1960s, states that the first trailer ever to show anywhere was at a New York area amusement park in 1912. One of the concessions workers at that park hung up a white sheet and showed the serial “The Adventures of Kathlyn”.  At the end of the episode, Kathlyn is thrown into a lion’s den.  The concessions worker then spliced into the reel some film that showed the text “Does she escape the lion’s pit?”

Next up:

  • In the early days of film trailers, a company called the National Screen Service began making crude film advertisements from transferred film stills without the permission of the film studios.  They’d then sell these film advertisements to be added on to the endings of films.  Rather than sue this company and have them shutdown for their innovation, as studios would most certainly do today, the film industry chose to embrace this novel format for trailers and began providing the National Screen Service with film footage they could use in these advertisements; this ended up giving the National Screen Service a virtual monopoly on movie trailers for a time.  It wasn’t until the late 1920s that studios began commonly making trailers of their own.
  • The most common trailer format today is the three-act structure, very similar to the structure of most films and plays.  In trailers, Act 1, setting up the premise of the story; Act 2, highlighting main plot features of the story; Act 3, generally features a very powerful piece of music accompanied by a visual montage of emotional, suspenseful, action packed, or humorous moments in the film, depending on the film type.
  • For the final Bonus Fact today, the maximum allowed length for any movie trailer shown in theaters or on TV is set by the MPAA.  The time limit is two and a half minutes, with one exception; each studio or movie distributor can exceed this time limit once per year, if they feel a particular movie warrants an extended trailer.  Trailers shown on the internet or on home videos have no time restrictions.
Expand for References

Higham, Charles, Howard Hughes: The Secret Life, St. Martin’s Press, 1993

Adams, Cecil, Did John Wayne Die of Cancer Caused by a Radioactive Movie Set? The Straight Dope, October 26, 1984, javascript:;

Jackovich, Karen, and Sennet, Mark, The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents, People Magazine, November 10, 1980, javascript:;

Fatal Fallout, Bathroom reader’s Hysterical Society, https://books.google.ca/books?id=LClZDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT146&lpg

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One comment

  • Personally, I find linking those cancer deaths to radioactivity tenuous. Intense radiation can cause cancer by directly damaging the cells. The cancer would normally be expected to appear fairly soon after exposure – also exposure has to be intense. The most common cancer produced by nuclear fallout is leukaemia. This is because radioactive strontium is absorbed by the bones in place of calcium, and stays there. Since its half-life is 30 years, it will release most of its radiation over a person’s life span. If any of the cast died from leukaemia, you would have a good case for relating it to the film. But the rest is just fortuitous.

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