The Deadliest And Most Racist Movie In Hollywood History That Nobody Knows About

The Conqueror brought together Oscar winners John Wayne and Susan Hayward to tell the epic tale of Genghis Khan and the woman he loved. Sounds like a solid movie, but instead this 1956 film is jam-packed with horrible racism, not to mention the fact almost half the cast and crew contracted cancer and many of them died. Instead of being the next blockbuster, The Conqueror became known as the movie John Wayne got cancer from.

Turns out, the filming location of The Conqueror was close to a spot used to test atomic bombs for over ten years, similar to the fake towns created to test nuclear weapons. However, the fact that a bunch of people died making it doesn't absolve the film from being downright awful. A poorly written script and a miscast Wayne doomed this film long before The Conqueror cancer deaths. Horrible stereotypes and racism – such as yellowface in The Conqueror – also makes this cursed film a predecessor for the whitewashing seen in movies today.

Like other bad things omitted from biopics, perhaps instead of his five-pack-a-day smoking habit, what caused John Wayne's death was actually this movie.

  • More Than 90 People Contracted Cancer As A Result Of Exposure To Radioactivity During Filming And More Than 40 Died

    No one knew how dangerous their situation had been until years later when many people involved were diagnosed with cancer. Less than seven years after the film's premiere, director Dick Powell had died. Pedro Armendáriz committed suicide in 1963 when told he had terminal cancer, and both Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward passed away in the '70s after succumbing to the disease. Not even tough guy John Wayne could escape, as the star was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and stomach cancer in 1979, which eventually killed him. It's been disputed that his five-pack-a-day cigarette habit was to blame, but considering how many other cast members, crew, and residents of nearby towns contracted cancer, radioactivity shouldn't be ruled out.

    In 1980, People published an article that crunched the numbers. Out of 220 cast and crew members, 91 had been diagnosed with cancer and 46 of those people had died. The press labeled the movie as "an RKO Radioactive Picture" and it's said producer Howard Hughes never got over his guilt. Although it was never completely proven that the radioactive dust did, in fact, end up killing so many people, one scientist at the Pentagon was quoted as saying, "Please, God, don't let us have killed John Wayne."

  • Everyone Knew They Were Filming Near A Nuclear Test Site, But Were Told It Was Safe

    The Conqueror was filmed in an area of Utah handpicked by producer Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, the spot was less than 140 miles from Yucca Flat, the area the Atomic Energy Commission used to test atomic bombs throughout most of the '50s. In 1953 alone, they set off 11 bombs, including the 32-kiloton "Dirty Harry." Besides being so close to the site, the filming location was also downwind, making the situation even worse.

    Hughes asked the AEC about the safety of the area and was told they were in no danger. John Wayne and others on set were given a Geiger counter which they played around with, laughing even though it was sounding all kinds of alarms. In fact, local residents believed the bombs were so safe, they would travel into the desert to watch the explosions as a form of entertainment, ignoring the toxic ash falling on their heads.

  • John Wayne Salvaged The Film's Script From The Trash But Later Regretted It

    According to Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando was originally cast in the role of Genghis Khan. It was a few years after On The Waterfront, and he was as popular as ever. However, John Wayne was at the height of his popularity as well. He happened to be in director Dick Powell's office when he noticed the script for The Conqueror allegedly in a garbage can, read it, and demanded the part.

    Although Powell tried to talk him out of it (reminding him he had just pulled the script out of the trash), Wayne would not back down. The film was a commercial failure and Wayne as Khan was dubbed one of the worst casting decisions ever made. Wayne later realized how big a mistake he had made, commenting he learned "not to make an a** of yourself trying to play parts you're not suited for." 

  • This Story Of Genghis Khan Is So Badly Whitewashed, There Are Only Two Asian Actors In The Entire Movie

    John Wayne wasn't the only actor who unsuccessfully tried to pass for Asian. Redhead Susan Hayward was cast as Genghis Khan's love interest, although it is possible Hayward only landed the role thanks to her affair with Howard Hughes at the time. Khan's mother was played by Agnes Moorehead, who was also white; Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz played Khan's friend.

    Groups of Navajo Native Americans were also employed to play Khan's hordes of Mongols, and none of them were given makeup to hide their ethnicity. There are actually only two Asian actors in the film, but they don't show up until the movie is half over. Only one of them has any dialog, and the actor who does speak asks Khan how he enjoyed his meal.

  • Makeup Artists Painted John Wayne's Face And Banded His Eyes

    In order to make John Wayne appear Asian, makeup artists gave him a wispy mustache, used rubber bands to make his eyes appear slanted, and slathered yellowish makeup all over his face, AKA "yellowface." The result was horribly stereotypical and made Wayne look less like Genghis Khan and more like John Wayne with heavy makeup and hair on his upper lip. 

    Although The Conqueror became more widely known for its link to atomic weapons than enforcing stereotypes, it's a grim example of the tradition Hollywood seems to have of whitewashing films.

  • Huge Wind Fans Blew Radioactive Dust Into The Cast And Crew's Lungs And Food

    Snow Valley, where filming was taking place, was covered in toxic dust that blew in and settled after several years of atomic bomb testing. Battle scenes for the film were shot almost every day and required the use of huge fans to create a more dramatic look. Although this may have made the fights look more convincing, it also meant everyone was breathing in deadly dust all day long.

    Actors were also required to roll around on the ground in some shots, coating themselves in even more radioactive dirt. Not even catering was safe from airborne dust as food items were covered in a layer of dirt. For 13 weeks, the filmmakers and actors were exposed to this toxic dust. Howard Hughes even collected and shipped 60 tons of radioactive desert dirt back to Hollywood to use in the studio so the interior shots would match.