The Conqueror and Other Bombs

How a wacky movie starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan sheds light on the recent nuclear bomb tests in India and Pakistan.

| Tue Jun. 9, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

One of the funniest, strangest, and saddest movies of all time is RKO's 1956 epic The Conqueror, starring John Wayne, certified American Hero, as...Genghis Khan.

Given the Cold War politics of the 1950s, everybody couldn't exactly fly to Mongolia to film the thing. Instead, they decided to substitute...Utah.

Sure. Utah, Mongolia. Pretty much interchangeable.

Enamored with Utah's Snow Canyon area, director Dick Powell shot most of the film in the same exact chunk of the Utah desert. So, if you watch closely, there are several spots where Wayne and co-star Pedro Armendariz ride some great distance and wearily dismount...almost exactly where they started.

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And, since absolutely everything has to be wrong on a picture like this, the script aims for a weird neo-primitive Shakespearean vibe, giving John Wayne lines like:

"I feel this Tartar wo-man is for me, and my blood says: take her!"

and

"She is wo-man—MUCH wo-man!"

and

"Know this, wo-man! I take you for wife!"

and so on.

Man, it's fantastic. Trust me. You've got to rent this thing sometime. It's a freakin' laugh riot.

It was also such a colossal financial disaster that RKO never recovered.

So what does this have to do with anything in the news? Stay with me here.

The Conqueror was also a disaster in another, much more horrifying way.

The town of St. George, where the cast and crew spent much of their time, and Snow Canyon, where most of The Conqueror was filmed, were about 100 miles downwind of the Nevada Test Site.

That's where the U.S. government tested various atomic weapons.

The government didn't bother to warn anybody about the fallout.

So the cast and crew of The Conqueror spent three solid months immersed in contaminated air, food, and water.

You can guess the result.

Reviewing The Conqueror's credits, from the top:

John Wayne? Died of cancer.
Susan Hayward? Died of cancer.
Agnes Moorehead? Died of cancer.
Pedro Armendariz? Committed suicide while dying of cancer.
Dick Powell? Died of cancer.

And so on.

By 1980, when People magazine did a headcount, at least 91 members of the cast and crew had contracted cancer.

People never found out how many of the Indian extras were afflicted.

It's a brutal irony that John Wayne, the living embodiment of American superpatriot militarism, may well have died as a casualty of the U.S. government's willingness to endanger its own people.

It gets much worse. The Conqueror is just a footnote to the full story.

The town of St. George, none of whose citizens were big Hollywood stars, suffered a similar fate. Uninformed of the danger, and exposed in their homes for years instead of months, the residents of St. George eventually contracted cancer in staggering numbers.

The Conqueror's crew numbered in the dozens.

St. George's population was in the thousands.

You probably wouldn't recognize any of their names. They weren't the sort of bigshots you'd read about in People magazine. They were ordinary folks, just like you and me.

And they were expendable.

Fast forward 40 years...

St. George is now a popular tourist gateway to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. A steady stream of tourists passes through the town, on their way to gorgeous scenery and carefree skiing.

Utah's Web page now refers to St. George as "Utah's Hot Spot."

Nobody seems to catch the irony.

Not only is The Conqueror forgotten; the only people who seem to remember the atomic cancer cluster are the descendants of the victims.

The full death toll of American civilians from U.S. atomic weapons testing may never be known.

Okay, India and Pakistan have now tested some big big bangs, and everyone's worried about how their future nuclear stuff might visit all sorts of horror on their enemies.

Which is scary, yeah. But how about we pay a little attention to what they've already done to some of their own people?

India tested their nuclear weapons literally walking distance from several small villages where some of their own unsuspecting citizens live and work. And already hundreds of Indians are showing some of the classic symptoms of radiation poisoning.

The Indian governnment says it's all perfectly safe, of course. Officials say the sick folks are just looking for a handout.

Which doesn't explain why livestock is keeling over as well.

Even if Pakistan and India avoid a hot war, innocent casualties of their conflict have already begun to mount.

You wouldn't recognize the names of the villages, nor would you know the names of the people who live there. But they're ordinary folks.

Expendable.

If you or I knowingly, recklessly, and needlessly kill a single innocent person, we then stand guilty of manslaughter and deserving of contempt.

Does it not follow, then, that if a government knowingly, recklessly, and needlessly kills an innocent person—or indeed, hundreds of innocents: in fact, the very people said government is supposed to represent—then this government stands equally guilty and contemptible?

The danger of nuclear weapons lies not only in their detonation in war. It also lies in their testing, their maintenance, and their disposal—indeed, in every phase of their very existence.

Humankind will someday abolish nuclear weapons.

Or vice versa.

Reprinted with permission by Bob Harris.

Bob Harris is a political humorist whose radio features will be syndicated nationally beginning this fall. Archives of his weekly commentary, The Scoop, are available at http://www.westsong.com/bobharris/. You can also receive them by e-mail, free of charge, by sending "subscribe" to TheScoop@earthlink.net.

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