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Old 07-10-2003, 10:02 AM
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Default Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?

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Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?


Dear Cecil:

My girlfriend says that half of the film crew and eight of the cast of the movie "The Conqueror" starring John Wayne died of cancer after an A-bomb test in Nevada. It can't be the truth--that many people--can it? Please, Cecil, give us the Straight Dope. --John L., Santa Monica, California

Cecil replies:

I'm horrified to have to report this, John, but your girlfriend's claim is only slightly exaggerated. Of the 220 persons who worked on The Conqueror on location in Utah in 1955, 91 had contracted cancer as of the early 1980s and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead and director Dick Powell. Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada. The whole ghastly story is told in The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved. But let's start at the beginning.

The Conqueror, a putative love story involving Genghis Khan's lust for the beautiful princess Bortai (Hayward), was a classic Hollywood big budget fiasco, one of many financed by would-be movie mogul Howard Hughes. Originally director Powell wanted to get Marlon Brando for the lead, but John Wayne, then at the height of his popularity, happened to see the script one day and decided he and Genghis were meant for each other. Unfortunately, the script was written in a cornball style that was made even more ludicrous by the Duke's wooden line readings. In the following sample, Wayne/Genghis has just been urged by his sidekick Jamuga not to attack the caravan carrying Princess Bortai: "There are moments fer wisdom, Juh-mooga, then I listen to you--and there are moments fer action--then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar wuh-man is fer me, and my blood says, 'TAKE HER!'" In the words of one writer, it was the world's "most improbable piece of casting unless Mickey Rooney were to play Jesus in The King of Kings."

The movie was shot in the canyonlands around the Utah town of St. George. Filming was chaotic. The actors suffered in 120 degree heat, a black panther attempted to take a bite out of Susan Hayward, and a flash flood at one point just missed wiping out everybody. But the worst didn't become apparent until long afterward. In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs at Yucca Flats, Nevada, which resulted in immense clouds of fallout floating downwind. Much of the deadly dust funneled into Snow Canyon, Utah, where a lot of The Conqueror was shot. The actors and crew were exposed to the stuff for 13 weeks, no doubt inhaling a fair amount of it in the process, and Hughes later shipped 60 tons of hot dirt back to Hollywood to use on a set for retakes, thus making things even worse.

Many people involved in the production knew about the radiation (there's a picture of Wayne himself operating a Geiger counter during the filming), but no one took the threat seriously at the time. Thirty years later, however, half the residents of St. George had contracted cancer, and veterans of the production began to realize they were in trouble. Actor Pedro Armendariz developed cancer of the kidney only four years after the movie was completed, and later shot himself when he learned his condition was terminal.

Howard Hughes was said to have felt "guilty as hell" about the whole affair, although as far as I can tell it never occurred to anyone to sue him. For various reasons he withdrew The Conqueror from circulation, and for years thereafter the only person who saw it was Hughes himself, who screened it night after night during his paranoid last years.

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Old 07-11-2003, 06:48 AM
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revwardoc revwardoc is offline
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Default The Duke and "The Big C"

Wayne's cancer was also the result of a 3-5 pack a day cigarette habit. So I guess the inhalation of radioactive dust plus tars and nicotines (as well as the other nasty tidbits found in butts) made him a walking, tumerous time bomb. He did have a lung removed back in (I believe) the late '60's-early '70's because of lung cancer.

Here's an addendum to the lung-removal part. A bunch of us were sitting in the terminal cafeteria at Norton AFB and one of the guys was reading about Wayne's operation in Reader's Digest. When he mentioned the part about the lung removal, this one kid from Kansas looked up in total astonishment and said (and I swear this is true), "If he had a lung removed, how does he eat!?" We asked what he meant and he replied, "Well, that's what lungs are for; they grind up your food as you swallow so you can digest it better!" To this day I thank God I didn't attend school in Kansas.
I'd rather be historically accurate than politically correct.
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Old 01-23-2004, 01:53 PM
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Old 01-23-2004, 02:45 PM
skeeter skeeter is offline
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Default Kansas!, Kansas!

aka DanG.. also known as "revwardoc"

Have you been to Kansas? If you been here, you would be a few days older than you are. What do I mean by that?. it takes you a few days longer to get where you are going.

I live here in Kansas, not because I love to, but because my wife inheited her parents (1280 acre) ranch. I was born and raised in Missouri... So we I retired from Navy and private business we moved to the ranch..

There are people out here been alive 50 years, but they haven't been born yet...

However, I like the southern part of Utah.
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Old 01-23-2004, 05:20 PM
travisab1 travisab1 is offline
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I've seen John Wayne several times. I remember the first time I saw him I was fairly young. He was in Dallas back in the late 40's or early 50's at an opening of one of his movies. My Mother Dad and I were all there. The first thing my Mother did when she saw him was run up and throw her arms around him and give him a big kiss while Dad and I looked on. I remember John Wayne asking Dad something like this, does she belong to you? He was talking to my Dad. My Mother, Dad & I have always been crazy about John Wayne. The last time I remember seeing him was at the Twin Gemini at the opening of True Grit in Dallas. He and Glenn Campbell were both on top of the concession stand.

When he died my Mother said she didn't feel safe in the world anymore. She felt as long as John Wayne was alive no-one would ever harm the States.

We'll all miss him. I know I do.

I regret that I have but one life to live...

I could sure use another one right about now...
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