The Conqueror Caused Cancer

June 29, 2023 | Sarah Ng

The Conqueror Caused Cancer

1956’s The Conqueror is considered one of the worst films ever, with John Wayne cast in the lead role as Genghis Khan. But the film’s total failure was the least shocking thing about it.

The Conqueror's Tragic Fallout

You see, in the years that followed, 41% of the crew got cancer. This may have seemed like an average percentage of cases for the time, but there was one disturbingly unique detail—the affected crew members developed the disease at far younger ages than usual. This sparked a debate over whether The Conqueror’s filming location doomed everyone involved from the very beginning.

Susan Hayward and John WayneUnited Archives / Collaboratore, Getty Images

Production took place in Utah, with many of the exterior shots set in the Escalante Desert. However, this was only 137 miles from a nuclear testing site. The filmmakers—though aware of the proximity—trusted the federal government, which claimed that the nuclear tests posed no danger to the public. Well, this proved to be a huge mistake.

The Film Continued To Haunt Him

The two lead actors both died of cancer in the 70s: John Wayne developed lung cancer, followed by stomach cancer, while Susan Hayward had brain cancer. As well, director Dick Powell and actress Agnes Moorehead also died from the disease. Tragically, cancer impacted 91 crew members in total.

The Conqueror Caused Caused CancerUnited Archives / Collaboratore, Getty Images

Reportedly, The Conqueror’s producer Howard Hughes felt terribly guilty about choosing the dangerous filming location, so much so that he shelled out $12 million—buying every print to stop the film from circulating. The whole fiasco had a chilling hold on Hughes. In the magnate’s final years, he obsessed over The Conqueror, re-watching it again and again.


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