Did shooting a 1956 movie in the irradiated Utah desert eventually kill John Wayne and a host of his co-stars and crew? It seems very possible and that is the just the start of tragedy on this week’s edition of Unpleasant Dreams.
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EM Hilker is our writer and researcher with additional writing by Cassandra Harold. Jim Harold is our Executive Producer.
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The desert was very red, even before the corruption settled on the land from the sky itself – a vast expanse of russet granules, rocky and harsh and very old. There were flats and canyons, scraggly desert shrubs low to the ground in some places, the occasional cluster of salt grass or cottonwood tree to break up the landscape. Approaching the towers of the National Monument, the ridges of the Grand Staircase, you might forget that this is the Escalante Desert in Utah; it could be Mars.
And how much more disturbing, then, to come across the sheep, stricken by the curse upon the land: dead, covered with blisters and burns; dead, deformed fetuses half out of their dead mothers. The unlucky ones lived – sickly, burned, bleating in pain and confusion, unable to help themselves. Barely able to walk. Barely able to drink. Death, which would come for them in time, would be a blessing.
When the shepherds found their animals, dead and dying downwind of the nuclear testing on that rich, red sand, they knew it wasn’t magic from the sky; they knew it wasn’t a normal disease passed among the herds. They knew what had brought this death to the land. Their flocks had died, often painfully and not nearly quickly enough, from nuclear fallout. And it would be decades before anyone would believe them.
A nuclear blast is something to behold, darkly beautiful and utterly destructive in equal measure. It starts in the heart of an atom, torn violently in two as a neutron is hurled through it, in an atomic blast, and that violence echoes as more and more atoms are torn apart, in an explosion of agony that seeks destruction. Nuclear fission creates a fissure in a molecule, a fissure in the world. It tears it all apart.
A hydrogen bomb’s explosion starts with less violence and more passion, two atoms coming together, melding and fusing and unleashing hell on earth; a bright and violent echo of a small sun. Nuclear fusion fuses things together, making so much energy, so much heat, that it envelops and sets ablaze all things, reducing people and buildings and lives to ashes and dust.
That’s not where it ends, though. After the devastation, the obliteration, the cataclysm, there are tiny, tiny particles remaining, drawn up into the empty blue sky, carried into the atmosphere and over a period of hours and days and weeks they gently, gently float back to earth, carrying with them echoes of the destruction of their originator, as they irradiate the lungs that breathe them in, the plants and animals that connect with them. They absorb those tiny, tiny particles, and then the people and animals and plants carry that little bit of death and destruction with them.
And that brings us to a lot of things: malformed or miscarried offspring, radiation burns that charred and lacerated the skin, cancers, and death: sometimes quickly, sometimes slow and agonizing. It brings us to destroyed communities and families in mourning. And, today, it also brings us to The Conqueror.
The Conqueror, the tale of Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan (c. 1162 – 1227) and his rise to power, was an RKO Radio picture released in 1956. It starred Hollywood darlings of the day John “The Duke” Wayne and Susan Hayward. Reportedly, Wayne fished the script out of a rubbish bin in the office of RKO director Dick Powell during a discussion on Wayne’s upcoming roles, and he lobbied heavily for the role thereafter. It’s generally agreed upon that the result, written by Oscar Millard and directed by Powel, was a terrible, insensitive, laughable movie. The stereotyped portrayals of the Mongolians, along with some impressively awful dialogue that sounds a little like a caveman attempting to recite Shakespeare, isn’t why the movie is still known today, nor is it the literal yellow face worn by the very clearly caucasian Wayne (a sadly common occurrence at the time). The paucity of Asian actors in a story about Asian people – there are only two actual Asians in the entire production, one of whom has no lines – is also, though terrible, not the standout feature of this movie. It’s not even primarily known for being the movie that bankrupted RKO, at the time one of the five major movie production studios in Hollywood, though it certainly did that as well. The reason we remember it still, the reason it’s considered to be a “cursed” film, is the death toll among the cast and crew of the movie – of the 220 people on the books as part of the production, 91 of them would be diagnosed with cancer; 46 of those people would die from it. Among those people were the director Dick Powell at the age of 58, both lead actors at the ages of 72 and 57, respectively, supporting actors Agnes Moorehead (age 73) and Pedro Armendáriz (age 51), and even the children of the leads who spent time on set would go on to develop cancerous (and in one lucky case, benign) tumors.
The majority of the movie was filmed in Utah, with the exception of a handful of re-shoots done in California with 60 tons of sand imported from the Escalante Desert where the exterior shots were originally filmed. Howard Hughes, a producer and major backer of the film, insisted the same sand be used for the sake of consistency. The area is near to the small but vibrant community of St. George, where the actors and crew found themselves welcomed as if they were old friends when they were finished shooting for the day. It was also less than 140 miles downwind from the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Proving Grounds, where nuclear testing was being conducted. There were 11 above-ground nuclear tests run in 1953 alone, a scant year before the filming began.
There’s no debate about whether or not there was radiation on the film site – famously, after cast and crew, who had only learned about the nearby nuclear testing from the local population – had expressed concerns, John Wayne held a Geiger counter up for the cast and crew to see, to illustrate that there was no harm. When it went off loudly, and moving it around didn’t produce any different results, Wayne cast it aside in the belief that it may be broken. Elsewhere, and still existing online, is a photograph of Wayne and his two sons playing with a Geiger counter, which registers a very high level of radiation.
Nuclear testing was very, very new then. The atom was only first split in 1932, and that very same process was used when Nagasaki and Hiroshima were bombed only 13 years later. That’s a very short span of time to go from zero to potentially planet-destroying nuclear weaponry. The technology was rushed due to the pressures of the second world war, and with the Cold War on its heels there didn’t seem to be time – or so felt the officials at the time – to stop and assess the situation. It can’t be said that the dangers weren’t known; they weren’t known to the public, certainly. The government had covered up the dangers and assured citizens that all was well, though even among the public not everyone believed them. This deception was not known until the Atomic Energy Commission’s internal reports were released due to lawsuits in the 1980s – But they always knew.
In 1940, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls of Manhattan Project fame went on record warning that nuclear fallout – those tiny, tiny particles that would travel hundreds of miles on the wind, had the potential to be incredibly dangerous. They had been warned.
It was once believed that radium, the element literally named for its radioactivity – discovered and isolated by Marie Skłodowska Curie, whose death is believed to be a result of exposure to radioactive materials – would be the ultimate cure for cancer. It was also believed by some to be a cause of cancer. The truth in the end would be both.
There were 4,300 sheep who died suddenly and terribly in the area of Cedar City, Utah, which much like St. George was roughly 100 miles downwind of the testing ground, and is in fact only 50 miles from St. George itself, following nuclear testing. The dead sheep, when autopsied, showed 1,000 times the maximum allowable dose for radioactive iodine for humans in the sheep’s thyroids, and 50% higher levels than allowable in their bone marrow. Field reports from investigating veterinarians at the time indicated that their deaths were clearly from fallout. The official conclusion reached by the AEC later that year was that the radiation was not to blame –
there had, after all, been a cold spell. People in general, and the government in particular, did not want to believe. And this would be set until operations analyst Dr. Harold Knapp drew attention to this, accusing the AEC of an intentional cover up a decade later. 400 documents released in 1979 would prove this to be true.
Alongside flocks of sheep in the vast expanse of the Utah and Nevada deserts, there were of course their humans who tended to them, and the spouses and children of those shepherds, the teachers who educated those children, the doctors who tended to their wounds and illnesses… a whole, thriving society, in other words, of people who were being born and living and dying, as important as other societies filled with living human beings.
Children born during the time period where there was active testing were 2.5 times more likely to die of leukemia than their older or younger peers. Many adults following that period were diagnosed with cancer – thyroid cancer was particularly prevalent, in humans as well as sheep – and a group of activists formed, who called themselves the “Downwinders” – that is, those who had the misfortune to have been downwind of the nuclear testing.
After years and years of lawsuits and petitions and unrelenting advocacy on the side of the Downwinders, in 1990, the American federal government began to offer some compensation to those affected by nuclear testing, through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which offers up to $100,000 USD to various workers related to uranium mining who suffered specific lung cancers and diseases after a fairly lengthy period of exposure through work, and $50,000 to “downwinders” but only those who lived in specific areas (with documentation, which can be hard to come by 30+ years after the fact) for a minimum of two years between 1951 – 1958, or for the entirety of the month of July in 1962. It should be noted that the roughly 40% of cast and crew of the Conqueror that were diagnosed with cancer and the roughly 20% who would die from it were on site for less than a year, yet were still diagnosed with deadly cancers. RECA is, at the time of this recording, set to expire in 2024.
Did nuclear fallout kill John Wayne and his coworkers during their relatively brief time filming in Utah? Some still argue today that the cancers among the cast and crew of The Conqueror weren’t due to fallout; allegedly these are the same statistics as for the average American at the time the film was made. It should be noted, and has been by a number of professionals, that these statistics don’t account for the age of onset, and that a number of Conqueror cancer diagnoses were in people much, much younger than the average. Wayne himself was known as an incredibly heavy smoker – heavy even for the day and age, wherein virtually everyone smoked and doctors promoted their favorite brands to their patients – and he and his wife both felt that it was the cigarettes rather than the radiation that killed him in the end. Perhaps that’s true. But those children who were gestated and who were born during those years of testing, the adults living there at the time, the Native American tribes in the area, the descendants of all those people – there is no question on how it affected them. The tragedy here is not that a group of celebrities may have gotten cancer from a “cursed” film site – it’s that people, human beings – famous or not, affluent or not, respected or not – were lied to and mislead, and many sickened and died, and the yet the lies continued. The criteria to qualify for the paltry compensation offered in the RECA – $50,000 can hardly be said to be worth your own longevity and quality of life, or that of your parents or children or the nice person who always wishes you a good day after they ring through your groceries – doesn’t inspire confidence that it’s truly intended to make things right. It’s difficult to get, more specific in terms of diagnosis than it perhaps should be, and depends on a level of documentation that most people simply can’t produce. It would be lovely to think that the government who allowed this to happen and either falsified evidence or chose to look the other way have learned from this experience, but we can’t know that this isn’t simply the bare minimum that can be done to make people stop talking about it.
One final note – that 60 tons of fallout-contaminated desert sand that Howard Hughes insisted on transporting to the RKO movie studio in California for the reshoots? It’s gone. Vanished into history. Nearly 70 years later, the amount of remaining radioactivity is negligible, but at some point in American history, someone lost 60 tons of radioactive material on a movie lot, and we’ll never know who was exposed to all that radioactivity, and how it changed their lives. Lives pushed together and torn asunder, like the atoms themselves, echoing outward through the world, carrying smaller pieces of destruction with them, and out into the larger universe.