Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bombs Away

When an actor's film career spans six decades, he's bound to end up in a couple of bombs. But in the case of film legend John Wayne, there's one movie where that was literally the case: 1956's The Conqueror.

I'm not talking about Duke Wayne uncomfortably miscast as Ghengis Khan, though that's the film's most obvious problem. It's unlikely that the Mongolian war lord was 6'4" or spoke in a western drawl, but director Dick Powell seemed to think slapping a Fu Man Chu mustache on America's most American of performers would transform him into a 12th-century Asian warrior. No, the film was shot in Utah just downwind of the Yucca Flat atomic testing range in Nevada. At least two of the blasts detonated during filming were three- and four-times the size of the explosion that leveled Hiroshima a decade earlier. Wayne was diagnosed with cancer in the early '60s and lost a lung to it in 1963, then battled the advancing condition until his death in 1979. 

At least 50 members of the cast and crew subsequently died of one form of cancer or another, including director Powell, co-stars Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward, and Pedro Armendariz, who shot himself when he learned he had terminal cancer. Children of Wayne and Hayward who visited the set contracted various forms of cancer as well, as did more than 90 members of the film crew. The nearby town of St. George has seen cancer rates fly off the charts, and no one has ever assessed the damage the testing inflicted on the surrounding Native American community. 

To make matters worse, tons of sand from the site were transported back to Hollywood for sound stage filming so the soil would match the location shots, exposing even more studio technicians and workers to intolerable levels of radiation. 

The movie has become a camp classic, but as amusing as it is to watch a group of 20th Century Caucasian actors stumbling around completely recognizable Utah landmarks as though those yurts are really somewhere in outer Mongolia, it's sad to know what was happening. While the cameras were turning, America's most iconic flag-waving defender was being poisoned by the very military defense program he so staunchly supported.

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