Westerns like The Searchers, Stage Coach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rio Bravo and (a personal favorite) Red River made John Wayne more than a movie star. They made him one of Hollywood’s greatest icons, signifying a distinctive and long alluring brand of rugged masculinity. But his legacy isn’t all cowboy strutting and sexy snarls. It includes talk of a curse that some say killed him.
‘Hang on, Kristy,’ You might be thinking. ‘John Wayne died of cancer. People know that.’ True story. But the story behind that story is sad and shocking.
In the height of his career, Wayne decided to shake up his persona with an unexpected role. In 1956’s The Conqueror The Duke was set to star as the merciless Mongolian Genghis Khan. Yup, Hollywood’s history of whitewashing is long and storied and often ridiculous. Also ridiculous was the historical epic’s plagued production. Shooting on location in the canyons of Utah meant Wayne and his co-stars Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead faced grueling heat upwards of 120 degrees during the 13 weeks of production. But that wasn’t all. The cast and crew narrowly avoided a flash flood that ripped through the canyons, and Hayward luckily ducked the claws of an attacking black panther. But their luck ran out. As the years went by and the body count rose, so did talk of The Conqueror’s Curse.
Despite a decent box office showing, the film was regarded as another flop for producer Howard Hughes, who had a reputation for recklessness. Unfortunately, it may have been his very disregard for onset safety that caused 91 cases of cancer and 46 deaths out of a production team of 220, way higher than the national average.
A year before The Conqueror rolled into production, the military had used nearby flats in New Mexico to test 11 nuclear bombs that delivered a payload four times of that dropped on Hiroshima. An unexpected shift in wind patterns pushed scads of radiated dust and sand onto St. George, Utah, where Hughes later herded his cast and crew. To his credit, pushy producer did ask the U.S. government officials from The Atomic Energy Commission if it’d be safe, and they said yes. And Hughes didn’t keep the radiation risk a secret from his employees. It was actually a joke on set. Sort of.
One day Wayne brought a Geiger counter on set along with his two sons, a moment memorialized in a now cryptic photo. It was meant to help calm fears about the radiation levels, but New Straight Times recounted in the 1980 article “Movie that Killed its Stars”:
“[The Geiger counter] went berserk. Wayne, who had tried it out in California, thought it must have been broken. The dust storms were so severe in the area that (the film’s director) Dick Powell often wore a surgical mask during filming. Besides breathing the dust, 700 meals a day were prepared for the cast and crew from local and contaminated food. Even today (26 years later) milk produced in the area shows traces of radioactivity. When all the outdoor scenes had been shot, 60 tons of the dust were carted back to the RKO studios in Culver City to recreate desert scenes convincingly.”
So for 13 weeks and change, these people eat, drank and breathed in radioactivity. Cancer claimed the lives of Powell in 1963, co-stars Moorehead and Hayward in ‘74 and ‘75 respectively, and Wayne in ‘79. 42 more Conqueror alums would meet similar fates, including actor Pedro Armendariz, who fatally shot himself in the chest when he learned his case was terminal. And so the story of a curse was born. But there was no curse, just an all too human hubris.
Maybe it’s unfair to blame Hughes for what happened. The government did insist it was safe after all. And some—including Wayne himself—have suggested his cancer was caused by the Duke’s six-packs-a-day cigarette habit. But Hughes blamed himself. Feeling “guilty as hell,” he pulled The Conqueror from circulation. And it’s said that in his later, reclusive years, Hughes would screen the film privately over and over late into the night. Perhaps wallowing in regret. Perhaps remembering those he’d lost. Perhaps hoping to be visited by ghosts of a happier past.