Friday, September 10, 2010

John Wayne and Mythology

I recently sat through John Wayne's 1956 "The Conqueror," widely known as The Movie that Killed John Wayne.

In an epic disaster of mis-casting, Wayne plays Temujin, the Mongol chief who's more famously known as Genghis Khan. Imagine that stilted manner of speaking you've heard in Western after Western coming out of the mouth of the terrible Mongol as he fights the Tartars!

His is not the only lily-white face, either. Imagine Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, William Conrad, and Lee Van Cleef. Not so much as a paleface-in-Asian-makeup to be seen. Really, the only ethnic folks have names like Gomez and Armendariz.

The film was shot in 1954 out in the Escalante Desert near St. George, Utah, about 100 miles downwind from the Yucca Flats nuclear test range, which had been active for the previous 3 years. Eleven nukes were lit off in 1953 alone. Apparently the cast and crew knew about possible radioactivity: there are photos of Wayne toting a Geiger counter!

The movie premiered in 1956. Seven years after that, director Dick Powell died of cancer. By the early 1980's, 46 of the 220 people who worked on the film were dead of cancer, including John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead, Susan Hayward, and Pedro Armendariz (who shot himself in 1963 upon learning he had terminal cancer). A total of 91 people had contracted cancer to some degree.

Producer Howard Hughes was horrified by the apparent link between his movie and the deaths of cast & crewmembers. He spent $12 million to buy up as many copies of the film as he could and for 17 years--until 1974--kept it out of circulation.

Here's where the mythology comes in. It was easy to find gossip about this Hollywood Horror; I picked the Straight Dope website, where someone asks, "Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?" Cecil Adams replied at length, laying out the story of the shoot and its nearness to the test site, laughing at Wayne's line delivery, and noting that:

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.

I didn't give it much thought the first time through, but during a later search (while watching the movie) in which I wondered how radioactive the area is today, I found a site with a deeper focus on the question of whether "The Conqueror" killed John Wayne.

Michael D. Shaw wonders, "Was The Movie The Conqueror Really Cursed? A Look At Radiation Paranoia." He sketches out the back-story quickly, then looks at the expert claim of Dr. Robert C. Pendleton:

With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.

Pendleton was quoted in a People Magazine article. Shaw says,

This sounds impressive until you do some basic research. According to the National Cancer Institute, at the time the article was written, the overall incidence of being diagnosed with cancer in a person's lifetime (age-adjusted) was about 40%. As it happens, this number still holds today. Thus, in a cohort of 220 people, 88 would be diagnosed with cancer at some point.

I have no idea how Pendleton came up with his "30-some." If anything, given the heavy smoking habits of many in the movie business at the time, including Dick Powell, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendáriz, Susan Hayward, and John Wayne at five packs a day, 91 is completely within the expected range. The only "astonishing" thing is that the People article did not mention the smoking habits of any of the deceased stars.

It makes the story less sensational, doesn't it? We humans like to look for big conspiracies and causes. It gives an otherwise mediocre movie a veneer of risk and mystery: Was this the scene where he got his fatal dose of radiation?

The Movie that Killed John Wayne? Not so much.

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