The Conqueror (1956): The Film that Killed John Wayne…Literally

Of the 173 film appearances of John Wayne, The Conqueror is one of his lesser known roles, and for good reason. In this movie, which Wayne actually asked director Dick Powell to star in, he plays the Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan.

Right off the bat it sounds ridiculous; John Wayne playing an Asian. They gave him makeup to make his eyes seem slanted and of course, a Fu Man Chu facial hair style. Wayne, who needed to make only one movie to finish out his contract with RKO, was heavily dissuaded by Powell to not take up this role and with the script thrown in the trash, Wayne pulled it out and said he wanted to play Genghis Khan as a cowboy would, and Powell then famously quipped, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”

And so they went filming, and by the time it reached theaters, word spread on how awful the film was. As of right now, it currently has a cult-following of those dedicated to watching bad films. It has made its way into books focusing on Razzie potential material, and is known as that project that John Wayne must have been insane to sign a contract with. What makes this even more of a shock is that this film came out the same year as The Searchers, a film which is said by many to be the Duke’s greatest performance.

I have seen The Conqueror only once, and would watch it again. As bad as it is, I enjoyed it. There are decent action scenes and the storyline is actually quite interesting. The fact that there is not one Asian in a film about Asians kind of threw everyone off, though, but this was the 1950’s and that was what the times were like. Anyway, this is not a movie review, but more of an interesting tidbit of trivia. John Wayne would die in 1979, a full 23 years later, but many attribute this film to his death.

The movie was notorious for being shot in the deserts of Utah, almost ten years after the United States Army conducted nuclear bomb testing there. Of the 220 people involved in the film, 91 would die of cancer, including Wayne, director Dick Powell, and every leading and supporting cast member: Agnes Moorehead, Susan Hayward, and John Hoyt. Another star, Pedro Armendáriz would also be diagnosed of cancer, but commit suicide after hearing the news. The number does not even include the extras and other people involved in filming. Numerous American Indians who served as Mongolian warriors contracted cancer in later years, and even John Wayne’s son Michael died in 2003 of cancer, after visiting his father on the set at age 22.

What is also even more mind-boggling is the fact that after principle shooting was finished in Utah, the production company had 60 tons of radioactive dirt shipped to Hollywood so filming could be finished on sound stages. Whatever became of this dirt is unknown; it’s probably been used as filler in a back-lot by now.

Within a year after the film debuted as a critical and commercial flop, producer Howard Hughes knew that problems were on the horizon. Out of guilt, he purchased every single print of the movie that had ever been copied, and kept them at his mansion home. In his later, eccentric years, he would view the film every night before going to bed, regretting each day for the rest of his life the fact that he produced the film.

Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne did not die of lung cancer, despite being a chain-smoker (and smoking up to seven packs a day during the 1960’s), but stomach cancer. In his later years, he would beat lung cancer and just when it seemed he would be cured and live, a new form of galloping cancer took over his stomach and he could not be saved.

Could this cancer have been the effects of the radioactive filming locations? There are just too many cancer-related deaths associated with this film to be coincidence.

If one can find humor in this, there was at one point a photograph in existence of John Wayne at the set holding a Geiger Counter, and there being radioactivity registering on it. Wayne also quoted that the moral of the film was, “Don’t make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you are not suited for.” What seemed like a harmless decision may have ended up costing one of the greatest American actors his life. In a People Magazine article from 1980, there was a quote from the Pentagon Defense Nuclear Agency regarding this film that read, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

25 thoughts on “The Conqueror (1956): The Film that Killed John Wayne…Literally

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    1. david

      Out of 220 people to have 91 of them develop cancer of any sort and have 46 of them die from it does seem to be an abnormally high rate. To determine the cause of any individual cancer is difficult especially given John Wayne’s smoking habit and other risk behaviors. . However statistically there is an epidemic of cancers associated with the cast and members of this movie.

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  5. David Harrisonn

    91 people dying of cancer out of 220 people is very close to the expected cancer death rate. Cancer kills roughly 40% of people in America. If you follow any group of 220 randomly chosen people, about 90 will die of cancer. The only way to blame the US army for this would be if the death rate from cancer was much HIGHER than expected. Also Wayne was a heavy smoker which explains his lung cancer. His death from stomach cancer was probably old age, with cigarette carcinogens thrown in.

  6. Susan Moon

    If John Wayne was able to register radioactivity on a Geiger Counter it’s pretty safe to say they all got more of a dose of radioactivity than was certainly healthy to get. Some who were predisposed to the desease probably contracted it immediately. For others it had to be in their system for some time before becoming evident. In any case the movie should have never been made there.

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  8. I don’t know where you folks are getting your information, but according to the American Cancer Society, on average, over the last 75 years, the death rate from all cancers among Americans stands at 22.7%. It’s pretty absurd to believe that nearly half of all deaths in America are the result of Cancer. Further, 20% of all cancers that kill people stem from either Breast or Prostate Cancer…neither of which are prevalent among the statistics of this movie. They filmed a movie on sites that were contaminated with high levels of radioactive fallout. Then, they moved TONS of dirt that was highly contaminated WITH RADIOACTIVE FALLOUT to a hollywood set and then, using that dirt within the confines of an enclosed set, continued to film the movie. Oh….and to the moron who suggested that John Wayne got stomach cancer from smoking, you are an idiot, sir.

  9. jag

    The biggest killer of Americans is heart disease. The next biggest killer was anyone who watched this movie. I started to laugh and thought I would die before it was over. By far the worst casting and hilarious acting. A must see to believe it.

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  11. JayC

    I was actually expecting to hear of a huge amount of retakes and spoiled film due to ghosting on the print from the radiation levels. Maybe that’s why they hauled all that dirt to H-wood, thinking they were getting away from the source. I thought the movie companies employed environmental advisers for such issues as this. Guess not.

  12. Darla Almond

    That is a trip thats for sure. I didnt know anything about all the interesting stuff in this artical, although I has seen several films that John Wayne stared in and this film I have seen it before in the yr 1972 I was only 8 yrs old and @ that time children of this wssnt sitting much or just didnt to watch westerns all the way threw if you get my meaning we to busy playing and making Mudd pies playing cowboys and indians and what not, but I must say threw the yrs Ive watched alot of his films and Im very sorry he did of that terrible terrible sickness and in severe pain constantly thats such a bad way to go im very sad we lost such a great man and actor.
    There was one part in the artical that I didnt quite understand when the person who wrote it when they were talking of his son Michael they stated that. ” Michael died also of cancer in 2003 after visiting him on the set at age 22. ”
    “HUH” Who is him ? ?
    Darla Almond
    Age 51
    June 24,2015

  13. Only Me

    I do believe he died of “lung” cancer, just not the way usually thought. I think the stomach cancer was a metastasis (spread to a different part of the body) from his original lung cancer. I’d love to see his pathology reports. Why do I believe this? Well, I’m a stage 4 bone mets cancer patient myself. 5 years ago, I had breast cancer originally. Well, it metastasized (breast cancer cells) from the original site thru my blood stream to my bones…the pathology report says the cancer cells in my bones are consistent with breast cancer cells. So…yeah, likely his “stomach” cancer originated from his lung cancer years previously.

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