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John Wayne

‘The Conqueror:’ The Tragedy Behind the Movie and its Connection to Oppenheimer

There’s no doubt that John Wayne is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. The Cowboy par excellence; almost all of Wayne’s movies were very well received by, both, the audience and the critic. Except probably for one, The Conqueror. 
The Conqueror isn’t only considered one of the worst films of the 50s, one of Hollywood’s most important decades in history, but also a cursed one. We’re not only talking about minor things like budget issues, delays, and several conflicts between its cast and crew; we’re talking about several deaths connected to its production. 
Yes, you read it right. But what does it have to do with Robert Oppenheimer? First things first…
The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 5 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer

John Wayne’s The Conqueror
Starring John Wayne, directed by Dick Powell, and produced by no other than Howard Hughes (the deranged pilot and film producer you saw in The Aviator), The Conqueror told the story of the bloodthirsty Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. 
Without delving into the problematic issues of casting a white actor in the lead role, the terrible historical inaccuracies, and the bad working conditions of the Native American extras, the movie was simply terrible.
Although most of the movie was set in the Gobi Desert, most scenes were shot in the Escalante Desert and Snow Valley in Utah. Now, why would this be shocking or be the cause of the alleged curse? And once again, what does this have to do with Oppenheimer?!

A Radioactive Desert?
Deserts are often seen as inhospitable and uninhabitable locations. It’s no coincidence that most government programs that deal with dangerous equipment are often conducted in deserts, and the US has a handful of large deserts. You might’ve guessed where we’re going. 
During the Manhattan Project, the government and the scientists involved selected several deserts in New Mexico to make atomic tests in 1945. After the war, they tried making these tests in the Southern Pacific Ocean to keep the secrecy; however, with the growing paranoid that sparked the Cold War, this Ocean wasn’t the safest place to try out nuclear weapons, so they shifted back to the US deserts to carry on with their work.
The Atomic Energy Commission, which Oppenheimer was a member of for some years, selected a territory in Nevada not only for the reasons we talked about before but also because its windy nature would help blow the radioactive “hazards” away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles. These hazards would end up going to the west, the home of ranches and Native American and Mormon communities.
Now, From 1951 to 1962 these programs detonated over 100 nuclear bombs sending lots of radioactive pieces and clouds of dust to Utah and Northern Arizona. Still, the government wasn’t worried about this, or better said, they did not care at all. More shockingly, they even promoted these as spectacles for the public and a patriotic activity! 
The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 3 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer
The Curse of The Conqueror
So, back to The Conqueror. As mentioned most of the outdoor scenes were shot in the desert of Utah, and even when it was 137 miles away from the testing area, the winds represented a peril for the cast and crew. In 1953, only one year before the shooting, 11 bombs were tested at the Nevada Test Site, so the production thought there would be no issue shooting nearby, not to mention that the government assured them they were all safe. Big mistake!
The movie was shot, it didn’t do badly at the box office yet it wasn’t great, and everything seemed fine for a while. But a couple of years later, the consequences of playing nearby radiation started to show up. Out of the 220 cast and crew members, it’s estimated that 91 developed cancer in the following decades. 46 ended up dying of the wide range of cancers they developed. 
If these numbers shook you, just think about the number of local civilians, mainly Native American and Mormon communities (known as downwinders), and the animals that were exposed for years to these radioactive particles! But back to the cast and crew.
The conqueror john wayne radioactive movie 4 - 'the conqueror:' the tragedy behind the movie and its connection to oppenheimer
Basically, all the main characters involved in the film fell victims of radiation. Director Dick Powell developed lymph cancer and passed nine years later, Susan Hayward passed of brain cancer in 1975, Mexican actor Pedro Armendáriz, who played Genghis Khan’s right hand, took his own life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Of course, the star of the show, John Wayne, didn’t evade the curse, he died of stomach cancer in 1979.
Wayne’s sons, Patrick and Michael, who were often seen playing around during shots, also battled cancer, but unlike their father, they survived. As mentioned over 90 people that worked on the film ended up developing a type of cancer, and although many different things could’ve caused it, the coincidence is too big!
Not surprisingly, no one was held accountable for the deaths and diseases provoked by these government tests at the time. It wasn’t until the 90s that an act was issued granting some compensation to the downwinders that developed cancer and other diseases. However, legend has it, producer Howard Hughes felt some guilt and ended up buying all copies of the movie. It’s said he would watch it every single night during his last and reclusive years.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Once Explained Why He Turned Down so Many ‘Petty, Mean’ Movies

Actor John Wayne is one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures to ever work in movies. However, he was very specific about the roles he would accept and the ones that he refused to involve himself in. Wayne once explained why he turned down so many potentially big movies that he described as “petty,” “small,” and “mean” through the evolution of Hollywood.

John Wayne played particular movie roles

John Wayne in one of his last movies 'The Shootist' alongside Ron Howard. He's wearing a Western outfit and holding a gun, pointing it out standing next to a stunned Howard.L-R: Ron Howard and John Wayne | Bettmann / Contributor

Wayne has over 180 acting credits to his name, spread across movies and television shows. He became a household name for the Western and war genres, ultimately contributing huge star power to the projects later in his career. However, Wayne also wasn’t afraid to speak up when he didn’t like something about the movies that wanted him involved. This held true for both prospective projects and ones that he already signed on for.
The actor ultimately turned down projects that earned attention at the Academy Awards, including High Noon. However, it wasn’t always because he didn’t like the roles themselves. Rather, Wayne was a patriot, who didn’t want anything to do with movies that he deemed insulting to the American image.

John Wayne explained why he turned down so many ‘petty, mean’ movies at the time

The official Wayne Twitter account shared a behind-the-scenes look at one of his movies, The Shootist. He talked about the state of violence in cinema, but he also touched on how he chose what to star in. The film hit theaters in 1976, so it’s worth taking the time period in mind for what he has to say about “modern” filmmaking.

“The whole idea of our business is illusion and they’re getting away from that,” Wayne said. “They’re putting electric squibs in livers and blowing them up in slow motion and then having blood all over everything. I mean, it’s not that there’s more violence in pictures today. It’s that it’s done with such bad taste that people turn their stomachs, not their emotional insides are affected. It turns their stomach. I just don’t want to play anything petty or small or mean. I don’t mind being rough and tough and cruel, but in a big way, no little petty things.”

The actor believed that cinema should be family-friendly

Wayne had a very firm stance when it came to violence in the movies. The rating board once even reached out to the actor to get his input. However, Wayne didn’t want any part in it because he didn’t think a rating system was necessary. He believed that Hollywood should make motion pictures aimed at the whole family.

Wayne starred in a wide variety of movies that included violence, but they never reached the extremes of what he talked about while filming The Shootist. Today’s filmmaking would certainly give him a shock if he were to see how much some movies push the boundaries and make audiences squirm.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Once Confessed the ‘Stupidest Damn Thing I Ever Did in My Life’ Involving His Romance

Actor John Wayne had three wives over the course of his life. However, the couples would always go through various hardships. Wayne always publicly embraced family life and would combine his image as a father with his tough, Western one. The actor once confided in a friend and told them the “stupidest damn thing” he ever did over the course of his lifetime.

John Wayne married his second wife 3 weeks after his divorce became final

John Wayne and Esperanza Baur, the second wife over the course of his life smiling sitting in a car wearing hats

L-R: John Wayne and Esperanza ‘Chata’ Baur | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marc Eliot’s American Titan: Searching for John Wayne touched on personal and professional aspects of the actor’s life. The divorce from his first wife, Josephine, was finalized on December 26, 1945. However, that certainly didn’t stop the actor from jumping into another relationship soon after. Wayne married Esperanza Baur, also called Chata, exactly three weeks after his divorce in the Unity Presbyterian Church of Long Beach, which is where his mother married her second husband, Sidney Preen. Actor Ward Bond was Wayne’s best man.

However, everything in Wayne’s life would change when he returned to Los Angeles after his honeymoon with his new wife. They purchased a new home in Van Nuys, California, and made sure to have a separate room for his mother-in-law. As a result, the newly-married couple started to have some difficulties.

John Wayne said that marrying Chata was the ‘stupidest damn thing I ever did in my life’

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne mentioned that Chata wanted to get a real role in a movie, but Wayne didn’t want her to have the life of a movie star. As a result, he told her that she belonged at home. Chata didn’t take this very well and turned to alcohol, developing an addiction.

Wayne ultimately turned to Bond to complain about Chata and his mother-in-law speaking Spanish and their desire for a bigger home. His new wife and her mother would often sleep in the same bed, forcing the actor to sleep on the couch in the living room.

Eliot wrote that Wayne took pride in his physical appearance and kept it in a specific condition for the camera. His ex-wife also took care of her physical appearance, but Chata refused to remove her facial hair, as she had a bit of a mustache. She also wouldn’t bathe very often and refused to shave her legs, which would make Wayne angry. Their arguments became increasingly frequent, which Wayne told Bond.

“Our marriage was like shaking two volatile chemicals in a jar,” Wayne said, admitting that marrying Chata was “the stupidest damn thing I ever did in my life!”

The actor would marry one final time

Wayne’s life moved on past Chata, as they divorced in 1954. Tragically, she died from a heart attack in 1961. Wayne married one final time to Pilar Pallete in the same year that he divorced Chata. They would ultimately remain married until the actor died in 1979, although they no longer lived together. The couple separated, but it was never legally so.

Meanwhile, Wayne became romantically involved with his former secretary, Pat Stacy, until his death.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Was a ‘Big Prankster’ With James Caan on ‘El Dorado’

Actor James Caan once talked about what it was like working with legendary actor John Wayne on El Dorado. The then-young actor didn’t initially get along with the Western star. However, they would ultimately develop their relationship in unexpected ways, as Wayne turned into a “big prankster” with Caan on the set. It’s a whole other side to the iconic actor that the world didn’t get to see very often.

John Wayne and James Caan co-starred in ‘El Dorado’

'El Dorado' James Caan as Mississippi and John Wayne as Cole Thornton wearing Western outfits surrounded by barrels

L-R: James Caan as Mississippi and John Wayne as Cole Thornton | FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

Wayne and Caan co-starred in Howard Hawks’ 1966 American Western called El Dorado, which was loosely based on Harry Brown’s novel called The Stars in Their Courses. The story begins when a heartless tycoon named Bart Jason (Edward Asner) brings in a group of thugs to claim the MacDonald family’s home right from under them. However, the town’s sheriff is too drunk to lend his aid.

An elder gunfighter named Cole Thorton (Wayne) agrees to lend his aid when he hears about the situation. He makes a trip to El Dorado, but he isn’t alone. Mississippi (Caan) joins to clean up the sheriff in time for the inevitable shootout to come.

John Wayne and James Caan turned into ‘big pranksters’ on the set

The official Wayne Twitter account tweeted an interview with Caan, where he talked about filming El Dorado. However, the situation that unfolded is anything but expected, as the tweet referred to Wayne as a “big prankster.”

“Wayne told me every time, he says, ‘Take a step, turn around.’ So, I do it and Hawks would yell ‘Cut’ and come walking, they’d reset everything, which took a half hour,” Caan recalled. “He’d go, ‘Look, kid, when you say the line, just go.’ ‘All right, coach. I’m sorry.’”

Caan continued: “Now, he walks, he does, as he’s walking back to the camera, he goes, ‘Now, look, kid. Don’t take a whole step. Just take a half a step and then turn around and give me that look you give me.’ I still have no idea what the freaking look is. I think I was smiling, just laughing at him. Action, everything starts up again, I take a half a step, turn around: ‘Cut!’ (Laughs). He comes up, yelling, ‘What’s the matter with you? Can’t you just say the line and go?’ ‘Coach, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what happened. I had a brain fart, something.’”

However, the next interaction would nearly put Wayne and Caan on very bad terms.

“He starts walking back and he goes, ‘Now look, kid,’ and I turn around and [Robert] Mitchum grabbed me, I was going to hit him,” Caan said. “From that day, we were … he knew what he was doing, you know? He was having a good time at my expense.”

The relationship between Wayne and Caan made a sudden turn for the hilarious when they started to play jokes on one another, but it clearly confused Hawks.

“But as a week went by, I’d be off camera and Hawks would be next to me, and Duke would be sitting there. Right in the middle of my scene, I’d go, (mouths) ‘You stink’ and he’d laugh. ‘Oh, what’s the matter there?’ ‘Oh, nothing. Sorry.’ It just became who can screw up who.”

Caan concluded: “Like, one day, you remember those wooden dressing rooms they had? I’d come to lunch, my dressing room’s locked. I go, ‘Excuse me, guys, how come it’s locked? I can’t get in there.’ ‘Well, here’s the key.’ Garbage just came out. He’d just pile it with garbage. He was like a 12-year-old kid.”

‘El Dorado’ became a box office success

John Wayne Wanted to Make His Home Alarm a Hilarious Tape Recording of His Voice: ‘I See You, You Son of a B****’

El Dorado would ultimately prove to be a success for both Wayne and Caan. The film earned critical praise, but the legendary Western actor often gave off the impression that he didn’t care what they had to say. Wayne would prefer for the audience to enjoy what he put up on the silver screen. Luckily, he would be in luck with El Dorado, which was a commercial success.

This particular Western would become one of Wayne’s more iconic genre pieces. Even his final movie, The Shootist would incorporate footage from it.

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