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RISKY BUSINESS: The Conqueror

How “The Conqueror” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions

Photo Credit: RKO

Hollywood history is littered with bad movies. 1956’sThe Conqueror” is one of the worst in a crowded field of terrible films. John Wayne stars as Genghis Khan and things only get worse from there. While it suffers from a host of racists and sexist issues – and many more overall quality issues – the reason we are talking about it today is because nearly half the cast and crew contracted cancer.



IMDb describes the plot of “The Conqueror” like this:

“Mongol chief Temujin battles against Tartar armies and for the love of the Tartar princess Bortai. Temujin becomes the emperor Genghis Khan.”

“The Conqueror” was produced by none other than Howard Hughes from a script by Oscar Millard. As the marketing campaign for the film is proud to tell you, it took two years to make and cost $6 million ($62 million in 2022). It stars John Wayne at the height of his movie star powers, which might explain why no one stopped him from playing an Asian character.

Widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made, “The Conqueror” finished outside the top ten highest grossing movies of 1956, pulling in only $9 million. This troublesome movie was directed by Dick Powell. Susan Hayward starred opposite Wayne in a role that ages almost as badly as Wayne’s Khan.

But the aspect of the film that has aged most horrifically is “The Conqueror’s” death toll. Over 91 of the production’s 220 cast and crew members contracted cancer. 46 died due to complications from the disease, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell.

This is a story of government lies, careless production decisions, and the most powerful weapon ever created by humankind. Let’s take a look at 1956’s “The Conqueror.”

An Unsafe Production

Grable Explosion, Operation Upshot-Knothole, Nevada Test Site, 1953. Photo Credit: Nuclear Weapons Archive

The script for “The Conqueror” almost ended up in the trash. According to the book “The Hollywood Hall of Shame,” director Dick Powell hated the script and planned to junk it. Then, one day, circa 1953, John Wayne met Powell to determine Wayne’s next film with RKO, ending a three-picture deal.

Powell left the room for a moment and when he returned Wayne was devouring the script for “The Conqueror.” Powell tried to convince Wayne that he shouldn’t make it. But no one could say no to John Wayne. Not back then and not once he’d set his mind to a role.

It wasn’t the script that killed people, though with lines like “you are beautiful in your wrath” who can honestly say. What killed people was the location they picked for the film.

The ‘Perfect’ Location

Around the same time that Wayne was falling in love with the role of Khan, six hours away in the Nevada dessert an atomic bomb exploded. Eleven to be exact.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) of the United States of America was deep into its above ground testing of atomic weapons during this period. In 1953 alone, a total of over 250 kilotons of nuclear weapons were detonated in Yucca Flat during Operation Upshot-Knothole. For reference, Hiroshima was 13 kilotons and Nagasaki was 25 kilotons.

An estimated 18,000 Department of Defense personnel participated in some above-ground capacity and were exposed to large amounts of nuclear radiation. Operation Upshot-Knothole released 35,000 kilocuries of radioactive iodine (radioiodine, I-131) into the atmosphere. This caused a spike in radioactive exposure across most of the continental United States.

The worst affected area, however, was right next door. The wind carried the nuclear fallout from those explosions east and much of it accumulated in St. George, Utah, and the surrounding dessert.

When the production team for “The Conqueror” scouted locations, they wanted to find a place that had the “red bluffs and white dunes” of the central Asian steppe. (Note: The Asian steppe is not often described in those terms). Of all the places they looked, production found their location in the canyons and cliffs of St. George. 

Adding to the allure of St. George, the production team loved that there was a large population of Native Americans in the area that could be cast as extras. Hundreds of the Shivwit Paiute were cast to play Mongols. The Shivwit Paiute cancer numbers were never recorded.

The Worst Decision of My Life

“The Conqueror” producer Howard Hughes has called his decision to film in St. George the worst decision of his life.

Production began in June of 1954 and was nightmare. Temperatures climbed above 120℉, a flash flood almost destroyed the set and nearly dragged away everyone on the cast and crew. To top it all off, a black panther attacked star Susan Hayward. The real damage, however, came from the ground and the air.

Sandstorms were common. High winds blew heavy sand across the set daily. It was so bad that director Powell had to wear a surgical mask on set. Actors were so thickly covered in the sticky sand that they had to be hosed down between shots.

The cast, the crew, and the producers knew about the nuclear tests and were worried about the potential dangers from radiation. Wayne brought a Geiger counter to set to help. It made so much noise, however, that, according to some accounts, Wayne thought the Geiger counter must have been broken.

Several members of production, including Wayne, brought family members to the set during production. All told, production took several months to complete but not before Hughes had 60 tons of radioactive sand sent back to Los Angeles to shoot some additional scenes on Hollywood sets. He wanted the sand to match.

All of this could have been avoided and, yet again, it almost was. Howard Hughes was concerned about the radiation. So he asked officials at the AEC if there was any reason to worry. The response Hughes received was identical to the one that all American’s received: There is no need to worry.

Lies And Misinformation

Vintage 1950’s postcard. Photo Credit: KCET

“Your best action is not to be worried about fallout.”

-Atomic Energy Commission Booklet, 1955.

While it is easy to blame Howard Hughes and company for their mistakes on this production, the truth is they were deceived. And so was everyone else. Let’s look at how.

AEC Suppression

The United States Government knew that nuclear fallout was dangerous to human health. As Dr. Harold Knapp, a former member of the Fallout Studies Branch of the AEC, told  People in 1980: “The government definitely had a complete awareness of what was going on. To a trained professional, the information contained in some of their once-confidential reports is most shocking.”

An August 1980 report from the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations about the impact of the nuclear bomb tests concluded: “All evidence suggesting that radiation was having harmful effects, be it on sheep or on the people, was not only disregarded but actually suppressed.”

Press Misinformation

The press aided in the suppression. When testing first began in Nevada, The Deseret News ran an editorial titled, “Spectacular Atomic Explosions Mean Progress in Defense, No Cause For Panic.” Columnist Clint Mosher was a unique champion of the testing, saying, “It was like a letter from home or the firm handshake of someone you admire and trust.’’

As a blanket of radioactive dust fell on Las Vegas in spring of 1955, The Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote, “Fallout on Las Vegas and vicinity following this morning’s detonation was very low and without any effects on health.”

National syndicated commentator of the era, David Lawrence, wrote in 1955, “The truth is, there isn’t the slightest proof of any kind that the ‘fallout’ as a result of tests in Nevada has ever affected any human being anywhere outside the testing ground itself.”

“The Conqueror” Comes to Town

It was into this cloud of misinformation that Howard Hughes stepped when he picked St. George, Utah. The press was telling everyone to remain calm and not to worry. Las Vegas was having blast viewing parties. The government said loudly and clearly that this was safe. And yet everyone in this story – the residence of the area, the producers of the picture, the cast and crew – they all felt like they were potentially in danger.

Howard Hughes used his government contacts to reach someone in the AEC. He had been a major government ally, surely, they would tell him the truth. But, the great Howard Hughes received the same lies as everyone else.

By the time “The Conqueror” arrived in St. George, thousands of sheep had died from the fallout and children and other residence of the area were already beginning to develop leukemia. The radiation had infected the water, the food, and the livestock. As the cast and crew dined at location restaurants, drank the local milk and water, and snacked on local treats, they were putting the poison into their bodies. And so was everyone who lived there.

That 1980 congressional report said it best: “The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.”

A Legacy Of Suffering

Reporters and spectators view atomic explosion. Photo Credit: PBS and Las Vegas News Bureau

“Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

Scientist at the Pentagon’s Defense Nuclear Agency (upon learning that John Wayne died of cancer).

The aftermath of this episode in our history is long and filled with suffering. Let’s look at what happened to both the production and the people of St. George.

The Effects on Production Personnel

Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, was interviewed by People in 1980. When asked about the high rate of cancer amongst the cast and crew of “The Conqueror,” Dr. Pendleton said, “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic.” Adding that in a group of 220, one would expect to see only 30 or so case, not 91.

Here is a short, edited list of health issues and deaths among the cast, crew, and family of “The Conqueror:”


  • Four years after production wrapped, Actor Pedro Armendáriz developed kidney cancer and survived. But in 1963, he learned that he had terminal cancer of the lymphatic system. He took his own life shortly after the diagnosis. He was 51 years old.
  • Also in 1963, just nine years after filming, director Dick Powell died of cancer. He had also developed cancer of the lymphatic system and it had spread to his lungs.
  • In 1965, actor Jeanne Gerson got skin cancer. Fifteen years later, she got breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.
  • In 1968, Tim Barker, son of star Susan Hayward, had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. He had visited his mother on set several times.
  • In 1969, John Wayne’s younger son Patrick – who spent lots of time on set with his father and older brother Michael – had a tumor removed from his breast.
  • In 1974, actor Agnes Moorehead – who played the thankless role of Hunlun in the film – died of uterine cancer. As she was dying, she said: “I should never have taken that part.”
  • In 1975, John Wayne’s older son Michael developed skin cancer.
  • Susan Hayward developed a host of cancers after filming, including skin, breast, and uterine cancers. She died of a brain tumor in 1975. Her son told reporters in 1980, “My mother was pathetic at the end. She was in a fetal position, she had lost her swallowing reflex, she had pneumonia and she had lost her hair.”
  • John Wayne, who was an avid smoker, survived lung cancer in 1965. The surgery removed his left lung and several ribs. Wayne had routine gall bladder surgery in June of 1979. During the procedure, doctors found a large cancerous tumor in his stomach. Wayne died of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979.
  • In the end, over 91 cast and crew member contracted cancer and 46 died from it. Those numbers do not include family and friends who visited set and it does not include the Shivwit Paiute extras.
  • Howard Hughes was guilt stricken by the cancerous production. At one point, he purchased all the available copies of the film and refused to let it see the light of day. Hughes spent his final years obsessively watching “The Conqueror” night after night.
  • The 60 tons of radioactive sand that was brought back to LA were scattered in an industrial section of Culver City near the studio. The sand is still there today, though experts say that its radioactivity has likely dissipated to non-harmful levels.

The Effects on ‘Downwinders’

The residence of St. George fared far worse than the members “The Conqueror.” While the cast and crew were exposed to harmful radiation for 13 weeks, the people in the fallout zone were exposed day after day, year after year for 12 years. Cancer rates in that community are staggering.

A 1997 study from the National Cancer Institute estimated that the radiation exposure from Operation Upshot-Knothole alone was expected to cause about 28,000 cases of thyroid cancer and upwards of 1400 deaths.

Those who lived in the hardest hit areas with the worst fallout are known as “downwinders.” They have a global community, several websites, and support groups. But, to a certain extent, we are all downwinders.

According to the CDC, “radioactive particles and gases were spread in the atmosphere” and sent radiation all over the globe. Everyone alive today – anyone who has lived on Earth after 1951 – has been exposed to this fallout.  All of us. Residue from these atomic tests exists in all our organs and our tissues of our bodies today. 

According to the US Department of Justice, the list of known cancers caused by exposure to nuclear fallout radiation include:

  • Leukemia
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Lymphoma
  • Thyroid cancer           
  • Male or female breast cancer
  • Cancer of the esophagus        
  • Stomach cancer
  • Cancer of the Pharynx           
  • Cancer of the small intestine
  • Pancreatic cancer       
  • Cancer of the bile ducts
  • Cancer of the gall bladder      
  • Salivary gland cancer 
  • Urinary bladder cancer          
  • Brain cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer

While above ground testing ended in 1963 with the signing of the Partial Nuclear Test Band Treaty, underground testing continued for decades. The last nuclear test in the Nevada dessert was an underground detention and it was conducted in 1992.

How To Avoid A Tragedy

Drawing from AEC Booklet, 1955. Photo Credit: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission

There is nothing anyone in Hollywood could have done to stop the AEC from exploding nuclear weapons in the Nevada dessert and poisoning the earth and the people who live on it. They could however have avoided adding more victims to this devastating situation.

We at Epitome are not here to “20/20 vision” this tragedy with tales of our superiority. People died horrible deaths because of this movie. Hughes himself was tortured by what happened.

The truth is anyone with eyes can see what should have changed about “The Conqueror.” They should have found a safer place to film.

What we endeavor to do now is look beyond the obvious and focus on the small but important ways that proper risk management could have helped save the lives of the cast and crew of “The Conqueror.” By looking at extreme examples like this, we can all learn how to improve safety on our productions.

Let’s look at three key areas:

  • Location scouting
  • Subject matter experts
  • Doubts

Location Scouting

It is far too easy to dismiss this movie as a one-off tragedy. As an example of ignorance and hubris. We do this at our own peril. The mistakes made in the making of “The Conqueror” are present in far too many films, even today.

When we are hired to provide risk management services on a production, we begin with the script. We encourage our clients to onboard risk managers during pre-production because that’s when so many key decisions are made, like where the production will shoot.

Choosing the right location is vital to any project. Our risk management team helps productions identify not only the right locations but the safest locations.

In the case of “The Conqueror,” a quick image search will show that the Asian steppe the production team was looking to approximate is nearly as varied as the landscape of continental United States. It contains deserts, yes. But also mountains, grasslands, rivers, lakes, and trees.

Not only could Hughes and company have found non-radioactive deserts in America, they could also have found locations that better represent the topography of the film’s setting.

While, obviously, the internet didn’t exist in 1954, thorough research would have led the production team to conclude that St. George was not the best location. Our risk managers help provide this kind of clarity during pre-production.

Location Risk Evaluation

One of the steps in our risk management process is location risk evaluation. We provide each and every one of our productions with detailed dossiers for all their locations. From crime rates, alternative-lifestyle tolerance, and local cannabis laws to proximity to Superfund sites and potential dangers from animals, plants, and the weather, our team provides productions with the information they need to keep their people safe and their projects on schedule.

Part of any location risk assessment on St. George in 1954 would have included its proximity to atomic testing and the potential dangers from fallout. While we know that Hughes didn’t have a risk management team on “The Conqueror” (they didn’t exist yet), we do know that he was aware of the potential dangers and sought council form the AEC.

Subject Matter Experts

When dealing with complex issues like nuclear fallout, it is imperative that you have someone on your team who is an expert in that subject.

We have dealt with everything on productions from tagging sharks and repelling into canyons to HALO jumps and tank munitions. Anytime we encounter a special safety scenario or a unique risk issue, we bring in a subject matter expert (SME) to handle that one element of production.

It is sad to read that John Wayne brought a Geiger counter to set but didn’t know how to read it. Had we been on staff for “The Conqueror” we would have encouraged the production to continue to question the safety of this location. We too would have been worried about the fallout.

In this case, we would have sent a SME – an expert in the radiation readings, if nothing else – out to the location to take readings. If we were on-boarded after the beginning of principal photography, as happens sometimes, we would have brought in a SME to help Wayne read his Geiger counter properly.

While we don’t have the authority to shut down productions, we would hope that Hughes and company would have done the right thing if given the right information. And that’s likely considering that, to our eye, they appeared to be looking for someone, anyone to tell them it was unsafe.

Doubts

When we researched the making of “The Conqueror,” we were struck by how often people had doubts about the safety of this location. Hughes went so far as to contact a government official. Hughes was lied to, but that doesn’t erase the doubt. Wayne brought a Geiger counter to set and that seems to suggest that he was unconvinced by the proclamations of safety.

We see this often. Production will ask themselves repeatedly if something is safe. Here is a little secret: Safe things are nearly always obviously safe. If you find yourself doubting the safety of a scene, asking multiple times if it is safe, stop. It likely isn’t safe.

Sometimes all you need is someone on hand to say “stop” for you. That is what we do a lot of the time. We help the creative team understand why they were doubting the safety in the first place and then guide them toward safer ground.

Howard Hughes, John Wayne, and the rest of the cast and crew of the “Conqueror” looked for answers. They didn’t have anyone on set to help them discern the truth and nudge them in the direction they were already leaning. 

BOTTOM LINE

Climax Explosion. The Final Test of Operation Upshot-Knothole, Nevada Test Site, 1953. Photo Credit: Nuclear Weapons Archive

The tragedy of “The Conqueror” starts with the atomic bomb and all those impacted, directly, and indirectly, from detonations. It involves lies, misinformation, and media collusion. And it ends with suffering and death.

Professional risk management could not have saved many lives in this scenario – far too many people died through no fault of their own, simply by living in a fallout zone – but risk management could have prevented a film from shooting in a radioactive area.

By assisting with the location scout, helping the production find a more representative landscape, deploying SMEs to provide much needed diagnostic information, and encouraging the creative team to listen to their doubts, risk management could have made a difference in the lives of the cast and crew of “The Conqueror.”

As for the downwinders, they are running out of time. The evidence of harmful neglect and misinformation by the government became too much for congress to ignore. In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was established. Affected residence can apply for monetary compensation for their suffering. The fund is capped at $50,000 per person, and it only applies to first generation residence of the fallout areas, not their children or grandchildren regardless of their cancer status.

It is not much in the grand scheme of things, but it is all there is right now. And the fund expires on July 11, 2022. If you think you might qualify or know someone who might, you should contact the justice department by following the instruction on this website – or go to downwinders.info – before it’s too late.

We’ll leave you with the epitaph on John Wayne’s gravestone: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

Join us next week when we look at the risky business of 1928’s “Noah’s Ark.”


Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.


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