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A John Wayne flop has been linked to high cancer rates. A new documentary aims to tell the community's story.

The 1956 movie “The Conqueror” is infamous among cinephiles, both for its casting of John Wayne as the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan and for a suspicious number of deaths that followed its filming downwind of a nuclear test site. Nearly 70 years later, the makers of the documentary “The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout” hope to tell the story of the affected “downwinder” community in St. George, Utah, near where the film shot as their federal compensation for radiation exposure is on the line.

At the time “The Conqueror” filmed in the Utah desert just outside the town, St. George was 137 miles downwind from the Nevada Test Site, where the federal government conducted more than 900 nuclear tests. 

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for years insisted to locals there was no danger, and when ranchers’ sheep began mysteriously dying, the federal government blamed it on the ranchers’ negligence. 

But after the movie was shot, observers noted the high rate of cancer among people involved with the filming: 91 of 220 crew members developed the illness, and 46 died. Director Dick Powell and stars Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead all eventually died of cancer as well, while Pedro Armendáriz Sr., an accomplished Mexican actor and the only nonwhite member of the film’s main cast, died by suicide when his cancer became terminal. 

Local Paiute Native Americans were used as extras for crowd and battle scenes, but no records were kept of cancer rates among them.

“The Conqueror: Hollywood Fallout” director Will Nunez said at a panel discussion Wednesday that he had the idea for the documentary in 2020 during COVID-19 lockdowns, and that at the time, he was only aware of the movie’s infamy and the alleged cancer connection.

“What started as a lark about this terrible movie became something else as I was researching about atomic testing and all that, and my goal was to see how I can try and do this in the most entertaining way possible so that a general audience can understand what had happened,” he said.

He noted that many of the most absurd features of the 1956 movie — such as flowery, pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue written with Marlon Brando in mind that sounds extra ridiculous in the mouth of the Duke — added some levity to what could otherwise be a straightforwardly depressing story.

The movie notes that eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who produced “The Conqueror,” may have exacerbated radiation exposure during filming by having 60 tons of the irradiated desert sands delivered to the RKO Pictures soundstage in Hollywood to film interior scenes.

Epidemiologists have warned of the difficulty of definitively identifying a single cause for one cancer. Wayne himself was skeptical of a connection between the filming and the disease striking the cast and crew, noting late in life that he, Powell and Armendáriz were heavy smokers. 

But Hayward and Powell both died in their 50s — a notably young age to develop cancer — and, as the documentary makes clear, the residents of St. George who developed cancer during the same period included young children. 

Hughes would later say he felt “guilty as hell” about the production of the movie, and as he became increasingly reclusive, he bought every print of it and watched it on a loop in his hotel suite.

Ultimately, questions surrounding Wayne’s death that first surfaced in People magazine led Utahns to begin investigating a potential connection to their medical histories. The declassification of internal AEC documents followed, and strenuous lobbying by downwinders won former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) to their cause, culminating in the 1990 passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which recently expired.

The documentary incorporates a variety of perspectives on the movie and its legacy, from Wayne’s and Hayward’s sons to conservative talk radio host Michael Medved, who began his career as a film critic specializing in “so bad they’re good” movies. Its most emotional voices, however, are those of downwinders themselves, many of whom remember the movie production coming to town and continue their lobbying over the radiation to which it helped draw attention to this day.

In the film, Mary Dickson, a downwinder activist and thyroid cancer survivor, notes that the effects of the nuclear testing fallout were not considered an emergency until the Defense Department began to worry that they may have, as an internal document put it, “killed John Wayne.”

RECA was reauthorized in 2022, but its authorization formally expired earlier this year after lawmakers failed to agree on a further extension. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), which would reauthorize the law and expand it beyond the 20 counties covered, as well as to children of downwinders, passed the Senate with 69 votes in March. However, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has declined to bring it to the House floor thus far, citing concerns about cost and whether it has the votes to pass in the GOP-controlled chamber.

Nunez’s documentary comes weeks after the authorization for RECA officially expired. Almost exactly a year ago, sponsors of the expansion bill hoped to take advantage of the buzz surrounding “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s biopic of the physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. Nunez told The Hill he hopes his movie, while much smaller, can similarly help drive conversation about downwinders’ plight.

“What I’m hoping is, now that RECA’s expired and the downwinders want to expand it to beyond the 20 counties, that this movie will help spread the word,” Nunez said.

Ultimately, however, he credited the dedication of affected locals for both the original law and for any breakthrough on reauthorization. 

Nunez compared the downwinder community to the locals in Love Canal, N.Y., who pushed for a federal cleanup after the neighborhood became the site of an environmental disaster in the 1970s. 

“If you notice, it’s all the women that raise hell,” he said.

Source: The Hill

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