Anything can happen in Hollywood. As an observer, you never know what to expect in movies, some of them are pretty predictable while others have great plot twists that blow our minds, but all of them have stories behind the scenes that the public never knows of, but when it is something big as it happened in the set of The Conqueror, it would see the light of the day.
If this movie doesn’t ring a bell to you, it might be because it is from 1956, but what is interesting about it is that it killed most of its cast and crew members. We all know a few bad movies that while watching them we were tortured for some hours, but according to the critics, this film was something else.
The Conqueror, also known as “the radioactive movie”, started its development in 1954. It was produced by the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes starring John Wayne and it is considered one of the worst films ever. It is based on the life of Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan and his journey to dominate all of the Eastern regions of the world, but the critics find it excessively awful, and it was Hughes’ nightmare until his last days.
The film had a budget of 6 million dollars and such a great cast, like Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz, that it seems impossible that it would appear in the book of The Golden Turkey Awards about the worst movies of all time. Wayne was at the peak of his career, but it was a really bad choice for him, instead of the big success it was predicted to be.
The whole filming of the movie was as terrible as the picture itself. First of all, they wanted to travel to Mongolia to use authentic scenes, but the Cold War made this impossible so the set was located in a highly contaminated deserted area in St. George, Utah, which was 137 miles near the Nevada Test Site where the U.S government had previously detonated several nuclear weapons, so the initial conditions weren’t the best in the world.
Hughes and all of the production were fully aware of the exposure that the 220 cast and crew and members were experimenting with. The first weeks of filming were difficult, the conditions weren’t appropriate and the script was so terrible that they had to do some re-filmings.
However, traveling again to the original location would have been expensive, so Hughes decided to move the set to a proper studio in Hollywood, not before he brought with him 60 tons of soil that were of course contaminated with radioactive material.
There weren’t any immediate consequences for the exposure. During the next 25 years, 91 people that were involved, developed cancer, including the director of the movie, Dick Powell, and most stars that starred in it, like the Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, who killed himself after finding out that he was in the terminal stage.
There were many types of cancer like lymphoma, brain, liver, stomach, and kidney, but all of the people that suffered from it ended up dying in the 70s and 80s. The deaths started just 8 months after the movie was premiered, but two years after the production, when Victor Young, the sound producer died from a brain tumor, and from that moment the rest of the diagnosis started.
However, a lot of people don’t believe that all of the deaths were because of this film, since a lot of the actors, like John Wayne, were heavy smokers and maybe this was the main cause of their cancers. But working on the set of The Conqueror was the only thing that all of the deceased had in common.
Robert Pendleton, a professor at the University of Utah, considered this phenomenon an “epidemic” since it was a direct connection with the late deaths of those people, and they could have taken it to court if there would have been an investigation about it.
After the results of the movie, like the poor rating, bad critics, and the diseases it caused, Howard Hughes felt so bad that it is rumored that he bought all existing copies for 12 million dollars so no one could see it again and watched it repeatedly until he died, but The Conqueror went back to the theaters and TV in 1977. If you watched The Aviator, you may remember how Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed this man’s life and ended the movie doing this exactly.
You have to remember that this was during the 50s, so people weren’t conscious of the harm that radioactive exposure could do, so even though they were fully aware of it, they didn’t know how much it would cause them. There are records that Howard Hughes asked if this could be prejudicial but he was told that nothing wrong was going to happen, so it wasn’t his direct fault.