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"Dirty Harry" conquers The Duke, others, during '54 film shoot

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A promotional poster for the 1956, Howard Hughes-produced film "The Conqueror."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In the new documentary The Bomb, the filmmakers included a 1950s-era recorded warning, alerting the residents of St. George, Utah to take shelter – but don’t worry – because winds are blowing radioactive fallout in their direction, following an atomic bomb test at the Nevada Test Site,  just 137 miles away.

Yes, St. George, a city of 15,000, got the brunt of the fallout in those days, particularly when the wind was “just right.” These “downwinders” in southwestern Utah began experiencing cancer diagnoses in great numbers.

And the government knew its own people were being "nuked," in essence. Their carelessness and child-like desire to blow up things - damn the consequences - has had a deadly legacy to this very day.

And when a big nuclear bomb was detonated a year before a film was shot nearby, the radioactive contamination it spread over the countryside would slowly kill many of those involved, including one of America's most-loved mid-20th century actors - John Wayne.

And so when the actors and crew arrived, they only knew very little that the landscape of red rocks, desert scrub and canyons, was seriously "hot." Yes, it was here, near St. George, Utah, during the summer of 1954, that Hollywood director Dick Powell made a notorious turkey of a film – The Conqueror – that starred John Wayne as Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as his love interest Bortai (watch a clip from The Conqueror here). Powell had reportedly thought the Utah landscape best matched the Central Asian steppes that Genghis Khan had conquered so long ago.

Sadly, an invisible killer lurked in the very air Wayne, Powell and others were breathing - one that would allegedly 'conquer' many of them.

As The Straight Dope website notes, Wayne was given a “cornball” and “ludicrous” script, made only worse by his “wooden line readings.”  The film would become notorious in that it was so bad and Wayne was miscast, even though he insisted on playing Khan, but in a “cowboy” style.

(Image via Alamo Central)

Wayne would later admit it was all a bad idea, reportedly saying: “Don’t make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you are not suited for.


Nevertheless, the notion that all that radioactivity was dangerous was seriously downplayed by the scientists and U.S. government. John Wayne and others were photographed during scenes shot on location holding Geiger counters – and the counters registering radioactivity.

Don't worry kids, the clicking sound means you love America. (archives)

One of the areas where the film shot – Snow Canyon – was where a lot of deadly fallout settled, likely from an May 1953 32.4-kiloton blast codenamed “Upshot-Knothole Harry,” but disparagingly called “Dirty Harry,” for the dirty quality of the nuclear explosion and fallout from the test at Yucca Flat.

In fact, the “Harry” test dropped fallout on 3,046 counties in the U.S., and would be noted for having the largest amount of fallout from an atmospheric nuclear test ever in the continental U.S.

So, for the 13 week shoot, the cast and crew were in the midst of it, no doubt inhaling a lot of radioactive dust.

The nuclear test that likely killed John Wayne. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Making things worse was that some shots had to be made back in Hollywood and 60 tons of “hot” dirt were shipped to the studio in Culver City, further exposing people to the isotope-laden soil. (The “transplanted earth” from the Utah site was later “spread around a nearby industrial neighborhood” near the studio).

This YouTube documentary "Atomic Hollywood" asks "Who nuked The Duke?" In a bit of sad irony the video narrator notes how John Wayne was one of the leading choices to play the role of Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films of the 1970's, a role first turned down by Frank Sinatra and later going to Clint Eastwood. Interestingly, both Wayne (who died in 1979) and Eastwood are considered the two most iconic actors to star in American "Westerns." 

John Wayne (top, middle) and Clint Eastwood (far right) at Paramount studios.

When People magazine did a story on The Conqueror radioactive location shoot controversy in November 1980, the reporters said that in that time (up to 1980), 91 members of the cast and crew – out of 220 – had contracted cancer, with 46 – including Wayne (stomach cancer), Hayward (brain cancer) and Powell (lung cancer) – succumbing to the disease. Statistically, a group that size should see around 30 cases of cancer.

Agnes Moorehead, also in the film, died of uterine cancer. Several of the actors' children that visited the location during the filming would also get cancer. 

Another actor in The Conqueror, Pedro Armendáriz, would survive kidney cancer four years after finishing the film, but would commit suicide in 1963 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer of the lymphatic system.

In the People article, the family members of those affected and those who died said at the time that while they are not “anti-nuke activists,” they were angered by the “mounting evidence that the government knew a great deal more about the danger of fallout from the tests than it told.”

After all, in those days, the Atomic Energy Commission was telling residents in that area adjacent to the Nevada Test Site that “Your best action is not to be worried about fallout.” Sure, Uncle Sam had long known the dangers of radiation. In fact, they were using the people of the Marshall Islands as human guinea pigs during this same period of time, as they tested monstrous bombs like the Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll.

And yet the People article notes comments from one of the actresses, Jeanne Gerson, who recalled a “constant wind whipping through the location” and “dust storms so severe that director (Dick) Powell often worse a surgical mask on the set.

Talking to Susan Hayward’s son Tim Barker in the 1980 article, “Over the years a lot of people – government and private industry alike – have been dumping things into the air and water without worrying about their effects. The damage in this case has been done. But if enough people get angry about it, maybe they can minimized the harm for the future.

And 37 years later, today, in fact, a story notes that at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, radioactive water has been leaking into the ground and Pacific Ocean for "months," proving the point that humans continue making the same mistakes over and over again.


Producing The Conqueror was aviator and notable recluse and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Film historian Greg Caggiano, at his Reel to Real blog, wrote that Hughes took the problems with The Conqueror personally, ultimately purchasing every print of the film, “out of guilt" because of the problems the film caused for so many.

He adds: “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 that he produced the film.

Another film that was on constant repeat in Hughes’ final days was the Rock Hudson Cold War adventure picture Ice Station Zebra. An odd choice, but he clearly saw something in that film worth thinking about.

In a Dust Devil Dreams post I wrote in 2015, "Man's conquest of the air," I wrote about Howard Hughes' plane crash in Beverly Hills, California, in 1946, 10 years before The Conqueror appeared in theaters. Was that accident, where he was pretty seriously injured, accentuate the mental and other health problems Hughes would suffer in coming years. 

While living in the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Nevada in the late 1960's, Hughes was afraid of the quality of air and water in the city because of the nuclear tests that took place just north of the city. He had many phobias and died very sad and broken in his final years, faced with psychological problems that paralyzed him. 

And again, the guilt over The Conqueror

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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