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John Wayne

This John Wayne Movie May Have Caused Dozens of Deaths

“This better be worth it.” It’s almost an internal threat, sometimes it’s more about the journey than the destination, but when it’s a journey through hell, you hope the destination will make up for what you’ve been put through. The same question can be asked in the history of film production, from the golden age to now, because we all know about the movies that were “cursed.” So many films had disastrous productions, with overblown budgets, delay upon delay, and worst of all, casualties among the cast and crew, from psychological distress to, unfortunately, deaths.
Are Strenuous Film Productions Worth It?
So, you ask: Was it all worth it? Sometimes, all the agony and disasters end up with a final product that is truly special, even world-changing, such as The Wizard of Oz. Sometimes, a movie is still good or even great, but you wonder if it was worth all the cast and crew endured and if the movie would still succeed without it. Other times, like in Waterworld’s case, a really difficult and expensive shoot wasn’t worth it critically or financially. And in certain, horrible cases, not only did the final product fail miserably, but the bad decisions of those on top, and the long-term effects it wrought on the cast and crew, made it never worth the risk at all.
It was the late 1950s, and everyone was all about the big, expensive sword-and-sandals epics. Throw a bunch of A-Listers, thousands of unnamed extras, and a bunch of horses in the middle of the desert and adapt a classic story of historical, mythological, or biblical proportions. This really kicked off in the early 1960s with films such as Spartacus and Cleopatra, but in 1956, the world was graced with one of the best in the genre, The Ten Commandments, and the very same year gave us one of the worst.

The Conqueror 1956

Image Via RKO Radio Pictures

RELATED:This Documentary About Making ‘Apocalypse Now’ Is Almost Better Than The Film

‘The Conqueror’s Casting Was the First Sign of Disaster
The Conqueror, directed by Dick Powell and produced by Howard Hughes, follows the origin story of the infamous Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, then called Temüjin. Such a significant figure in history would require the perfect man to play him, the man chosen was John Wayne. Yes, The Duke, the eternal cowboy, playing Genghis Khan. This is the fact that people don’t believe when first hearing it, having white actors in offensive makeup play Asian characters wasn’t new, just an unfortunate reality of film history, but… John Wayne, really? That was considered a horrible miscast even back then. Marlon Brando, another actor with a staggeringly distinct look and voice, was originally slated for the role but backed out of the project. A much better choice, East-Russian-born Yul Brynner, had a more promising movie to do (The Ten Commandments), and they were both incredibly lucky they missed out.
The Conqueror is considered the worst film of the 1950s. At least Plan 9 From Outer Space is fun, and mercifully short, but The Conqueror is nearly two glacial hours long and takes itself deadly seriously. It is insulting and historically inaccurate – and just overall embarrassing. So, Howard Hughes blew $6 million (that’s $65,993,382.35 today) on a terrible movie, big deal. Bigger budgets have been spent on worse movies, and it made that money back. However, a bad movie would become the least of the cast and crew’s worries.

The Conquerer’s Downwind Disaster
The Conqueror is considered a cursed movie by many, and it has the regular pitfalls of any film given that description, going over budget, getting delayed, and conflicts between, well, mostly Hughes and everyone else. But this film is considered more cursed than most; the effects being far-reaching and lasting many, many years. This was no curse brought on by higher powers like, allegedly, the production of The Exorcist. This wasn’t some product of supernatural meddling, because this film didn’t just have a toxic working environment, it had an irradiated one.
If a dysentery-stricken Harrison Ford, the million-dollar insurance policies of The Mummy, and the testimony of many, many actors can teach us anything, it’s that shooting in a desert anywhere in the world sucks. Nature is out to get you in the middle of nowhere, you have to fight with the blistering heat, potentially dangerous animals, all while dealing with the regular stressors that pop up on a film set. Nature doesn’t compromise, nature doesn’t cooperate, and nature doesn’t care about your movie, why should it? According to Harry and Michael Medved’s book, Hollywood Hall of Shame, The Conqueror made for a grueling shoot for that reason alone, water sources dried up, and people fainted from heatstroke, but it was pushed over the edge from grueling to genuinely dangerous by the particular desert they decided to use for filming.

John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Conqueror (1956)Image Via RKO Radio Pictures

The Conqueror, while set in The Gobi Desert, was filmed primarily in the plains of Utah, Snow Valley, Pine Valley, Leeds, Harrisburg, with the outdoor scenes being shot in the Escalante Desert. The outdoor scenes, as in any desert shoot, were the most dangerous, but 137 miles downwind from where the cameras were rolling was the Nevada National Security Site, otherwise known as The Nevada Test Site. It was the 1950s, the Cold War was quickly heating up, and this site was a prime location for testing nuclear weapons of mass destruction. According to John G. Fuller’s book, The Day We Bombed Utah, the health effects of nuclear fallout, no matter how small the exposure, is devastating, with many “down-winders”, particularly from the city of St. George, suffering from cancer because of it. The filmmakers knew about these tests, 11 of them occurring in 1953, the shoot beginning only a year later, but were assured by the government that they were safe to continue the production

The Fallout of The Conqueror
Out of the 220 cast and crew members counted, 91 of them ended up developing a wide range of cancers in the next couple of decades, and 46 of them ended up succumbing to the disease. Among the fatalities were Powell, Wayne, and stars Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendáriz. This number does not account for the primarily Native American extras in the film, which likely means the number of humans affected was much higher, but the many animals in the film were also not safe. There are, naturally, other reasons that one would get cancer in the 1950s, everyone really, really liked to smoke back then for example, but having almost half the cast and crew of the same film all succumbing to a disease that is caused by nuclear fallout seems like a pretty big coincidence. All of them spent months downwind of a nuclear test site, breathing the air, drinking the water, and touching the dirt not only there, but in re-shoots when Hughes insisted it is imported in.
Shockingly, no one got served for this horrific and damaging misstep, not Hughes, not Powell, not RKO Radio Pictures, not the government. According to Darwin Porter’s book, Howard Hughes: Hell’s Angel​​​​​​, that guilt really set in for Howard Hughes, and when he began to spiral into obsessive compulsiveness, he hoarded every print of The Conqueror, one of the films he’d watch repeatedly until his death in 1976. There is far more of this story to tell and is told in books such as Killing John Wayne: The Making of The Conqueror, which is worth its own movie, and reading it is far more worth your time.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Pushed Through a Severe Injury to Ensure ‘The Train Robbers’ Premiered on Schedule

John Wayne is known around the world as one of the most iconic cowboys of all time. Decades after his death, John Wayne continues to be praised for his nearly 200 unforgettable appearances in film and television. And though his larger-than-life presence, good looks, and husky voice took him far in Hollywood, it was his commitment to his films that led to John Wayne playing such a large role in cinema history.

The Duke began his career in 1926. As time went on, the stoic superstar developed a reputation as a stunt man. Many of his Westerns involved action-heavy scenes, and the technology to make stunt work easier to fake didn’t yet exist. As such, many legendary John Wayne films were extremely physically demanding.

Hiring a stunt man was an option used by many in Hollywood. But The Duke refused. Instead, he insisted on doing his stunts himself. Though this was an admirable step to take, it led to many injuries for Wayne throughout his career.

The audience knew that the hero would win in the end, but reaching victory often involved getting punched, kicked, shot, and stabbed along the way. He was even blown up and crushed by a bulldozer (on separate occasions, of course).

John Wayne Filmed ‘The Train Robbers’ With Broken Ribs

Perhaps the most horrifying injury of John Wayne’s career occurred on the set of the 1973 Western The Train Robbers. In the film, Wayne plays the starring role of Lane, the leader of a group of cowboys hunting down a dastardly train robber.

According to the John Wayne biography entitled Duke by Ronald L. Davis, The Duke broke two ribs mere days before filming began on The Train Robbers. As Wayne was an irreplaceable star, the injury led to a rearranging of the film. Rather than focusing on high-speed chases and deadly battles between cowboys and outlaws, The Train Robbers honed in on dialogue and character building.

That said, it was still a Western, and every Western needs a certain amount of action. For The Duke, it was essential that “the action scenes looked believable”. Wayne was so committed to his scenes that he flat-out refused to work around his injury. “He wasn’t a crybaby,” his wife Pilar Wayne told The LA Times. “He could tolerate pain.”

And tolerate pain, he did. John Wayne pushed through the broken ribs, determined to keep the film as close to the original script as possible. While filming, he was clearly limited with his movements and he appeared somewhat ill on set.

On-screen, however, no one could tell the difference. The Duke still gave a fantastic performance. Three years later, his Hollywood career came to an end, but John Wayne will always be remembered as the tough-as-nails actor he truly was.

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John Wayne

Original Cast of John Wayne’s ‘The Cowboys’ to Celebrate Film’s 50th Anniversary With The Duke’s Family

The career of John Wayne is one of the most revered in all of American filmmaking regardless of genre. Even long after his death, his unmatched contributions to the Western film genre are still a thing of legend.

John Wayne: An American Experience, The Cowboy Channel, Stockyards Heritage, and Hotel Drover have partnered up with the members of the cast of The Cowboys and Wayne’s family. Together, they will host a celebratory festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the fan-favorite film. The official John Wayne Instagram page announced the event by paying tribute to one of Wayne’s many iconic moments.


“In honor of the 50th Anniversary of The Cowboys, celebrate with members of the original cast & the Wayne family June 24, 25, & 26 in the Fort Worth Stockyards! For a list of events and tickets, head to JohnWayne.com”

The 1972 film is based on the book of the same name by William Dale Jennings. Wayne stars alongside Roscoe Lee Browne, Slim Pickens, Colleen Dewhurst, and Bruce Dern. The Cowboys tells the story of a down on his luck rancher being forced to hire a group of inexperienced cowboys to get his herd to market on time. It’s one of Wayne’s most enduring films with his performance often regarded as one of his best.

The Cowboys Still Holds A Special Place in Hearts of Film Fans

Fans of the film will no doubt be thrilled by the opportunity to hear directly from the people who worked and lived alongside Wayne during the making of the classic film. One member of the cast, A Martinez who played Cimarron, took to his own Instagram account to post a message about his experience shooting The Cowboys for its 50th anniversary.


“It was a thrill and an honor to be a part of this project,” said Martinez in his post. “A haunting, timeless theme, adapted from the novel by William Dale Jennings, brilliantly directed by Rydell. With gorgeous cinematography by Bob Surtees, an indelible score by John Williams –– and a great performance by John Wayne –– the power of #TheCowboys abides.”

The 3-day celebration includes outdoor screenings after sunset on the Livestock Exchange lawn all three nights. Fans will have meet and greet opportunities with 9 members of the cast. Then, A live televised film panel with a studio audience will film at The Cowboy Channel Studio Sunday night. In addition, there will be special installations and reception at John Wayne: An American Experience, a sprawling 10,000 square foot exhibit providing an intimate look at the life of The Duke.

Any fan of John Wayne who can make it to Fort Worth, Texas for this celebration of a beloved piece of Wayne’s filmography should purchase tickets as soon as possible. Relive the memories of this classic film alongside cast members and Wayne’s family with the special event.

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John Wayne

This John Wayne Western Almost Starred Elvis Presley

When you hear the names Elvis Presley and John Wayne, the word icon undoubtedly comes to mind. Although they were famous figures in their own right, they had more in common than you might think. For instance, they nearly starred alongside one another in one of Wayne’s many westerns.

As the undisputed King of rock ‘n’ roll, Presley became a worldwide viral sensation for his gyrating hips and rock-n-roll music. Yet, he also dipped his toes into the world of movies.

He had performed in various movies like King Creole and Blue Hawaii in the past. In addition, he had some Western movie experience when he starred in Love Me Tender. According to IMDb, the movie is a Western set during the end of the American Civil War.

Elvis plays the role of Clint Reno, the brother of a Confederate soldier who becomes involved in a train robbery. The movie was released in 1956, just as Elvis became a rising star. As a result, he grabbed the attention of another acting veteran.

Love Me Tender was the hitmaker’s first movie role. Little did he know, John Wayne was watching at home. As a result, Wayne decided he wanted to collaborate with the rising star.

Elvis Presley’s manager decides on True Grit role

Billy Smith, Elvis’ cousin, once answered whether John Wayne asked Presley to star with him in a movie more than once. According to Smith, via his Youtube channel, co-starring alongside Wayne wasn’t Presley’s style, or rather, it wasn’t his manager’s preference.

Billy Smith, Elvis’ cousin, once answered whether John Wayne asked Presley to star with him in a movie more than once. According to Smith, via his Youtube channel, co-starring alongside Wayne wasn’t Presley’s style, or rather, it wasn’t his manager’s preference.

As Smith described, anytime anyone wanted to collab with The King, it was “always carried through Colonel.” Presley was at the height of his fame around this time. According to Smith, “Colonel didn’t want him to play … second star with anybody else.” 

Sadly, Presley would miss out on the role of LeBoeuf. In addition, he wouldn’t get to join forces with one of the genre’s most beloved figures. Glen Campbell would instead take on the part. 

However, maybe the decision happened for a better reason. When the film was released in 1969, it was a critical moment for Presley’s career. In December of 1968, just before True Grit premiered, Presley embarked on his now-legendary “comeback special.” In 1969, he delivered almost 60 performances at the magnificent International Hotel in Las Vegas. 

During this whirlwind of a year, Presley proved the point of his manager: Elvis Presley would play second fiddle to nobody, even John Wayne. 

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