On January 27, 1951, sixty years ago today, the United States government detonated its first atomic bomb in the new Nevada Proving Grounds, an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas. The blast was reportedly seen as far away as San Francisco.
Hundreds of above-ground nuclear tests followed at the site over the next several years, many with U.S. Army personnel stationed near the blasts to test the effects of radiation on ground troops.
The tests had another group of unwitting human guinea pigs in 1953: the cast and crew of the big-budget disaster, The Conqueror.
This ill-fated production starred John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan – one of the worst casting mishaps in history – and was filmed over thirteen grueling weeks near St. George, Utah, just downwind from the test site. After the filming in Utah concluded, producer Howard Hughes compounded the problem by bringing sixty tons of irradiated soil back to Hollywood to dress up the sets during retakes.
Everyone on the production knew about the atomic tests, but had been reassured by the government that the bombs were safe.
Governmental guarantees didn’t prevent the cancer deaths of director Dick Powell, as well as nearly the entire starring cast, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and John Hoyt. Pedro Armendariz, another star of the film, committed suicide a few years when he developed terminal kidney cancer.
While it was not surprising that lung cancer claimed the lives of John Wayne and Agnes Moorehead, two of the biggest smokers in Hollywood, what is statistically significant is that within 25 years of the film’s release, 91 of the 220 cast and crew members on the set developed some form of cancer – a rate three-times the national average – and 46 had died of the disease.
About the only thing worse than these figures is the film itself.
The Conqueror, which attempts to turn one of the greatest murderers in human history into a sympathetic character, is quite simply one of the worst movies ever made.