1956’s The Conqueror was a flop, and for good reason. But then, one by one, those involved began to die off. Was it a coincidence, an incident gone wrong, or something more… sinister?
Chances are you’ve never seen The Conqueror. You’re likely better off for it. The film, in itself, isn’t anything to write home about. Produced by the reclusive megalomaniac Howard Hughes (a story in himself), the film is a western-style epic starring John Wayne as… Genghis Khan. More specifically, Genghis Khan as a white man with a slightly ethnic looking moustache. No, really, I can’t get over how little they tried with this outfit. Check this out:
Now, if this post was about the actual content of the movie, it wouldn’t be very long. I’ve never seen The Conqueror myself, nor have any strong wish to do so. Rather, this is the story about what happened after the film’s critical failure.
The year is 1960, four years after the release of The Conqueror. Pedro Armendariz, a Mexican actor who — you guessed it — played a Mongol chief, began complaining about shortness of breath and persistent pain in his abdominal region, particularly in his hips. A trip to his doctor, as well as many trips thereafter, revealed the grim news: he had developed kidney cancer.
But something didn’t add up. Armendariz, at the time, was well outside the normal age of a cancer diagnosis. He lived a relatively healthy life for the day and age, regularly exercising and staying away from cigarettes. His doctors were initially optimistic about his treatment. They worked to give him the most up to date cancer treatment at the time in order to facilitate a speedy recovery. But something happened: the treatment didn’t work. In fact, it seemed as though the cancer only got worse. In June 1963, Armendariz’s doctors informed him that his kidney cancer had become terminal. A few days later, he shot himself dead in his hospital room.
Armendariz wasn’t the only case, however. Just five months prior, The Conqueror’s director Dick Powell died from cancer. Then John Wayne, then costars Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, then more members of cast, crew, and production. All in all, 91 members of the team behind The Conqueror would end up developing cancer — almost half of the entire film crew.
As the years went on, the remaining crew began to panic. What had caused this, and who was next? they wondered, both among themselves and to the media tabloids. Little did they realize, the man behind it all — Howard Hughes — knew something they didn’t.
In the years before production on The Conqueror officially started, a team including Hughes and Powell began scouting for locations in America that would best fit the look of Mongolia’s desert steppes. One location that immediately came to mind was Utah; more specifically, the Escalante Desert near St. George. The land was flat and barren, yet cool enough during the afternoon and evenings to resemble the Mongolian climate. After other locations were eliminated, and the cast and crew acquired, the team made their way down to Escalante to begin the several weeks of filming under the brutal Utah sun.
A few days into the filming, Powell received a strange letter. It was unmarked, and seemed to be left directly at the door of his trailer. Upon opening the envelope and reading its contents, he learned that the letter was sent by an anonymous scientist working for the National Security department stationed in Nevada. The scientist shared some grim news: the location which they had to decided to film the near entirety of The Conqueror at was 137 miles downwind of the largest nuclear testing site in America.
The next morning, Powell shared the letter with Hughes. It was always rumored that the bulk of the above-ground tests done by the United States military took place in Utah, but the government usually kept tight-lipped on where and when such tests occurred. Hughes, having close Air Force connections from his days as a pilot, asked around to see if anyone could verify the scientist’s claims.
A few weeks later, they got word back — in the form of an official National Security representative who came right up to Hughes’ trailer. Yes, the representative told him — the stories were true. The Escalante Desert did have its own nuclear testing program. But, he assured Hughes, much research had been done on the so-called “downwind effects” of nuclear radiation and it was deemed safe enough for all those who were living down in the valley, including those filming The Conqueror. Not only that, but nuclear tests in the area had stopped for some years. You are fine, the representative told him repeatedly. You have nothing to worry about.
And so, Hughes forgot all about the incident — ignoring the fact that the representative’s concession proved the authenticity of the scientist — and filming on one of the worst films ever made continued. Perhaps Hughes would have forgotten about the whole thing, even the film itself. But then the bodies started rolling in.
No one knows why Hughes didn’t mention the letter and the representative when all this was happening. The story about the nuclear tests was only found out after the military declassified the information, and Hughes’ knowledge was revealed via documents left after his death. Perhaps he was trying to save face. Perhaps some part of him hoped that, despite what he knew, it wasn’t true. That the cancer cases were just a coincidence.
And, certainly, many people still think they are. To this day the effects of downwind radiation are unproven, and many have been quick to point out that the cancer rate of The Conqueror’s crew does line up relatively well with cancer rates as a whole during the decade. Take John Wayne, for instance — did he really get cancer from the Escalante bombings, or did it have more something to do with the fact that he smoked six cigarette packs a day? That, of course, doesn’t explain the cases like Armendariz, but it does lend credence to the fact that the spooky scientist letter may have very well been a misnomer.
Of course, Hughes himself never got over it. His mental health already in its declining stages, the curse of The Conqueror weighed heavily on him. In his late life he would obsess over the film, wonder what could have gone different — not just for the film’s quality, but also for the lives of the crew that were involved. They say that, in his final days, he would lock himself in his private theater and watch The Conqueror over, and over, and over again…
The Magical Reality series contains fictionalized elements in true stories for the purposes of narrative and suspense. Articles under this series should not be used in serious discussion of the events they depict.