Downwinders and the Tragic Legacy of the Film 'The Conqueror'

Radiation from above-ground nuclear tests conducted in Nevada during the early 1950s contaminated neighboring communities and a film set.
Marcia Wendorf
1, 2

From June through August 1954, famous engineer, aviator, and movie producer Howard Hughes assembled the cast and crew for his latest epic, The Conqueror on location in and around St. George, Utah.

Movie poster for
Movie poster for "The Conqueror". Source: Reynold Brown/Wikimedia Commons

Directed by former actor Dick Powell, the movie's stars included John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendáriz, John Hoyt, and Lee Van Cleef.


Located in the southwestern corner of the state, St. George is just 137 miles (220 km) from Yucca Flat, Nevada, which is where the Nevada National Security Site is located. There, above-ground nuclear tests were conducted from January 1951 until August 1963.

Operation Buster-Jangle-Dog
Operation Buster-Jangle-Dog. Source: Commons

In all, 928 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were conducted on the site, and 100 of them were atmospheric tests. By 1953, 11 above-ground nuclear weapons tests had been performed as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

Two of Upshot–Knothole's tests were particularly "dirty", and deposited long-lasting radiation downwind. They were "Simon", a 43-kiloton shot which was fired on April 25, 1953, and "Harry" a 32.4-kiloton blast that went off on May 19, 1953. For perspective, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was only 13 kilotons.

"Harry" was the first nuclear bomb to have a hollow-core design, and when it exploded, it had a yield of over thirty-two kilotons, which was a full twenty kilotons greater than the advisable yield which had been determined by the Atomic Energy Commission’s Chief Medical Officer.

Downwinders and the Tragic Legacy of the Film 'The Conqueror'
"Harry" Source: ImagesOfNevada/Reddit 

Following "Harry's" explosion, early morning winds carried radiation directly toward St. George. There, Geiger counters measured 300 - 350 milliroentgens, and in some cases maxed out their scale. As the radiation cloud traveled over the city, school children were at morning recess.

In the days following "Harry", the public expressed so much concern that the Atomic Energy Commission was forced to create a film designed to convince the public that they were safe. The AEC did not, however, advise those downwind of the test to avoid consuming local vegetables and milk. Both the vegetables and the grass on which cows grazed would have absorbed the isotopes strontium 90 and cesium 137.

The website Atomic Heritage has reported that "... nearly 150 million curies of radioactive material was released through the atmospheric tests conducted from 1951 to 1962. This amount of radiation equates to about twenty times the amount of radiation released during the Chernobyl nuclear accident."

Most Popular

University of Utah professor Dr. Robert Pendleton stated that "Fallout was very abundant more than a year after "Harry". Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much." Even more disturbing, Pendleton described how radioactivity could concentrate in "hot spots" such as canyons. Much of The Conqueror was filmed in Snow Canyon.

The Conqueror

The Conqueror ended up being a bomb at the box office, no pun intended, and included one of Hollywood's most famous miscastings - that of John Wayne as a 13th-century Mongol warlord.

However, within a few years of the filming, unusual medical ailments started appearing in the cast and crew. In 1960, Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and after learning that his condition was terminal in June 1963, he killed himself.

In January 1963, director Dick Powell died at the age of 53 of lymphatic cancer. Susan Hayward suffered from skin, breast, and uterine cancers before dying in 1974 at the age of 56 of brain cancer. That same year, Agnes Moorehead died of uterine cancer at the age of 74. Lee Van Cleef died of throat cancer in December 1989, and John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991.

John Wayne spent years fighting cancers of the lung, throat, and stomach before finally succumbing in June 1979 at the age of 72. Any suspicions he might have had that there was radiation in the area of The Conqueror are confirmed by this photo of Wayne and his sons using a Geiger counter during the filming.

John Wayne using a Geiger counter
John Wayne using a Geiger counter. Source: Reddit

By the end of 1980, it was determined that 91 of the 220 people who had worked on The Conqueror had developed some form of cancer, and 46 of them had died.

The legacy of nuclear tests

During the 1970s, leukemia rates in the St. George area were five times higher than that of their non-downwind counterparts, and those affected came to be called "Downwinders". Cases of thyroid cancer in young children also spiked. In an attempt to provide compensation to Downwinders, in the late 1970s, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored a bill entitled, The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) of 1979, however, it was never voted on.

On October 15, 1990, The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was signed into law by then-president George H.W. Bush. The act provided compensation in amounts between $50,000 and $100,000 to those suffering from leukemia, thyroid cancer, bone cancer, and any other cancer determined by the National Cancer Institute to "develop after exposure to low-level radiation."

The government expected that only several hundred people would apply. Instead, as of April 20, 2018, 34,372 claims had been approved, totaling $2,243,205,380. The amount paid out could have been much higher, since, by the time of the settlement, many downwinders had already died.

Howard Hughes suffered enormous guilt over his decision to film The Conqueror in St. George, Utah, and in response, he purchased every available print of the film, paying over $12 million, so that the movie could never be seen. Hughes kept the movie out of circulation until his death in 1976. In 1979, Universal Pictures bought the film from Hughes' estate.

Following the completion of principal photography in Utah, Dick Powell and Howard Hughes shipped 60 tons of radioactive soil back to Culver City, California where it was deposited on a set and used in shooting retakes. According to the People Magazine article, that soil is now spread around a nearby industrial neighborhood.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron