Conqueror, The: Movie That Killed John (Duke) Wayne?

In recent years, there has been a suspicion that John Wayne and other cast and crew members had contracted cancer during the shooting of Howard Hughes’ The Conqueror, embarrassing epic in Saint George in the Utah Desert.

Many of the 220 cast and crew members have contracted various kinds of cancer and died, including seven of the stars: director Dick Powell (who died in 1963), Pedro Armendariz (1969), Thomas Gomez (1971), Agnes Moorehead (1974), Susan Hayward (l975), producer Howard Hughes and John Wayne (both in 1979).

Wayne’s children, who had visited the set, also contracted diseases; Michael developed a skin cancer, and Patrick was operated for a breast tumor. There was also a high proportion of cancer victims among the small population of Saint George. There is still suspicion that the cast members were exposed to highly radioactive fallout from nuclear tests, conducted the year before at Yucca Flat, Nevada.

The government denied its responsibility in a Congressional report. However, a Nuclear Defense Agency scientist is quoted to have said, “Please, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”

The controversy over the government responsibility subsided, though on March 8, 1981, KTVV aired in California the first segment of “The Great Hollywood Mysteries,” which re-examined the issue. Entitled, “Did America Kill John Wayne” it disclosed that the movie was shot about 140 miles from the atomic testing site, where the “Dirty Harry” bomb went over the Nevada and Utah deserts.

Rumor also has it that Howard Hughes’s repurchase of The Conqueror for a huge amount of money, after selling RKO and its library, had to do with his guilt over sending the cast and crew to these radioactive places. The program reached no definite conclusions; the questions are still open-ended.

Many of the players who appeared in “The Conqueror” believed they had contracted cancer on the sets. Agnes Moorehead is quoted as saying: “A lot of people beside Duke got cancer on that movie,” before becoming a cancer victim herself. And Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz, told by his doctors that he had terminal cancer, decided to put his gun to his head. “He had more guts than any of us,” Wayne was quoted saying in privacy, though for obvious publicity reasons he himself could not take his life–even if he wanted to.

Michael Wayne believes that his father “stayed alive on will power alone,” and that characteristically he “didn’t cry over a lot of stuff that went by in the past, things you can’t do anything about.” Michael had been advised to sue the government, but he refused, “this isn’t going to bring him back.”