The following is an excerpt from A Short History of Nuclear Folly by Rudolph Herzog, translated by Jefferson Chase, published by Melville House on May 1:
The script for The Conqueror, a costume film about Genghis Khan, was completely wretched. The story focused on the Mongol warrior’s youth, a period in which he was obsessed, in the best tradition of the Hollywood Western, with avenging his father’s death. Along the way, young Genghis wins the heart of shrewish Tartar Princess Bortai, melodramatically swearing his undying love to her. Against an exotic backdrop, the film runs through one 1950s macho and sexist cliché after another. [Susan] Hayward struggled to maintain some dignity as the female lead amidst all of [producer Howard] Hughes’s intellectual flotsam and jetsam, even though as a red-haired Anglo-Saxon she hardly made a credible Tartar princess. The script reduced her to a prop, someone as utterly dependent on Genghis as Hughes always wished women were on him in real life. Playing the passionate lover and fearless warrior Genghis was none other than John Wayne. Allegedly, the veteran gunslinger had practically begged for the utterly incongruous part.
It’s hard to imagine two more thoroughly miscast actors. Wayne, who was far more at home playing upstanding sheriffs, looked ridiculous in his fake Genghis beard, and Hayward, who was supposed to be an ill-treated prisoner in a dungeon, was thoroughly glamorous and always immaculately made up. Even during the action scenes, not a single lock of her hair ever fell out of place. In contrast to Wayne, Hayward had been against the project from the very beginning. But Hughes had gotten his way, wearing her down with a combination of threats and money.
As a setting, the filmmakers had chosen Snow Canyon in southwest Utah. The landscape may have been nothing like the Mongolian steppes, but that didn’t matter to director Dick Powell. The canyon was near a small town called St. George, and it was from there that, a short time previously, prospectors had headed out into the desert armed with Geiger counters.
When they reached Snow Canyon, the measuring devices went crazy, yet upon digging, the prospectors didn’t find any uranium. Only a year before Powell and his crew began shooting, the U.S. Army had carried out a test code-named “Harry” in neighboring Nevada. It would go down as one of the dirtiest atmospheric detonations of all time. From a military perspective, the test had been a rousing success. About 1,000 soldiers had been able to view Harry’s fireball for a full seventeen seconds. The bomb contained relatively little nuclear material, but its destructive force had been devastating—especially for the environment. At least a third of all radiation released by all American nuclear tests between 1951 and 1958 came from this one exercise. The pillar of smoke had ascended to an elevation of 11,600 feet before topping out and heading east. A radioactive cloud drifted off toward St. George, 270 kilometers away from Ground Zero. For several hours, unsuspecting residents were showered with radiation. Many of the 5,000 “downwinders” who populated the town would later develop cancer—a late result of Harry’s fallout. Yet the authorities rejected the idea that the high levels of radioactivity in Utah could have anything to do with atomic tests in Nevada.
Nor was St. George the only place that had been contaminated. In Snow Canyon, radioactive particles from the main nuclear cloud had collected as if in a funnel. It was precisely there that, at Hughes and Powell’s insistence, the first clapper board was snapped shut for the filming of The Conqueror. The producer and at least part of the cast and crew must have been aware of the radioactivity—John Wayne even posed for a photo with a Geiger counter in Snow Canyon—and there is absolutely no doubt that Hughes knew about the potentially lethal effects of radiation exposure. He had co-financed a 1953 film, Split Second, that had been set in a nuclear testing range. The director of that film was none other than Dick Powell. Nonetheless, the two men sent their team out into the gleaming sands of the valley. Five thousand Indian extras were brought in for the monumental battle scenes, 1,000 horses galloped across the 120-degree heat of the landscape, and dozens of aspiring starlets hired to play concubines strolled around half-naked, fulfilling male fantasies.
Shooting got off to an inauspicious start. John Wayne hurt himself in a riding accident, and Susan Hayward was attacked by a “tame” panther. When Genghis’s falcon also got sick, work on the film was suspended for days. Meanwhile, Wayne’s wife and Hayward nearly came to blows after the actress supposedly fell in love with the rapidly graying Duke. Amidst all the accidents and misunderstandings, though, the actors were working in radioactive filth. Huge fans threw up sand and dust to heighten the drama of the battle scenes. At the end of each day, the actors had to be cleaned off with air presses and hoses. Stuntmen who threw themselves from their horses swallowed mouthfuls of sand. Moreover, after the on-location work was finished, Hughes and Powell had sixty tons of radioactive sand brought to a Hollywood studio, where Wayne, Hayward, and a smaller cast and crew continued filming.
In the decades following the shooting of The Conqueror, there was an unusual series of illnesses and deaths. Susan Hayward developed lung cancer and died in 1975 of a brain tumor. John Wayne also got lung cancer, from which he died in 1979. Cancer killed Dick Powell, as well as supporting actress Agnes Moorehead. Moorehead was later said to have spoken of “radioactive bacteria” that had infected her on the set of the Genghis Khan epic. A character actor named Pedro Armendáriz, best known from the James Bond film From Russia with Love, shot himself in the heart while hospitalized for cancer. Moreover, children of Wayne and Hayward who had visited their parents in Snow Canyon also developed the deadly disease.
This may be coincidence. No connection has ever been proven between the Harry test and the high incidence of cancer among those connected with the film. Wayne and Hayward were heavy smokers. Moreover, the prevalence of well-known victims often tempts people into conclusions that don’t always hold water, as was the case with a series of deaths that came in the 1920s after the spectacular discovery of King Tutankhamun’s grave in Egypt. […]
In the case of The Conqueror, People magazine determined that ninety-one out of 220 members of the cast and crew had developed cancer. As of 1980, forty-six had died of the disease. People magazine may not usually be the most reliable statistical source, but these figures have been accepted by Greenpeace and John Wayne’s biographers. If we assume they are accurate, they would suggest a connection between the film shoot in Snow Canyon and cancer. Normally, in a group of 220 people, thirty to forty people at the most would develop the disease. It would be interesting to know how many of the thousands of Native American extras developed cancer, since the battle scenes would have exposed them in particular to radioactive fallout, but no one has studied this question.