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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.

John Wayne

”The Shootist”: John Wayne put all his heart into the final movie.

John Wayne. What can you say about him? Whether you enjoy the man’s work or not, there’s no denying that he has made a massive impact on film history and pop culture. But even as a fan, I can’t defend every aspect of the Duke, like the guy’s acting. I can’t think of anyone who’s watched a John Wayne film for his acting chops.

The man was more known for his screen persona than his acting abilities, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some good advice on acting.There are, however, a couple of films in which Duke pull off a pretty good performance . There’s his iconic role as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) where he played a cold-hearted and cynical war veteran searching for his niece.

Then there’s his Oscar-winning performance as the one-eyed, fat, drunken Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit (1969). But in this column, I’m going to talk about his last performance in a feature film :Тһе Տһootıѕt (1976), directed by Don Siegel.Based on the Glendon Swarthout novel of the same name, the film tells the story of an aging gunfighter named JB Books, played by Duke, who at the dawn of the 20th century finds out he has terminal cancer.

Per this news, he decided to try and spend his final days in peace. But as rumors spread about him through the tiny town of Carson City, Nevada, more people want to get a piece of him. It eventually climaxes with Books realizing that he’ll never escape his past and going out the only way he knows how.Before I go on about John Wayne in the film, I have to talk about the rest of the cast.

This film boasts an all-star ensemble, many of whom took the role purely as a favor to Wayne. There’s Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) who delivers the bad news to Books about his health and becomes a closer friend throughout the film. “You know, Books,” he says, “I’m not an especially brave man. But, if I were you and had lived my entire life the way you have, I don’t think that the ԁеаtһ I just described to you is the one I would choose.

Then there’s the late, great Lauren Bacall as the widowed boarding house owner Bond Rogers and Oscar-winning director Ron Howard as her wide-eyed idolizing son. The film also features a slew of great TV and Western legends — Richard Boone as the vengeance seeking Mike Sweeney, John Carradine as the town’s undertaker Hezekiah Beckum, Bill McKinney as the ill-tempered Jay Cobb, Scatman Crothers as the liver-stable owner Moses Brown, and Harry Morgan as the fast-talking and loud Marshal Thibido.

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John Wayne

The reason John Wayne is labeled as ‘Draft Dodger’ by the audience in World War II.

Around the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Wayne was not the big-name actor we remember him being today. He was fresh off the box-office success of the 1939 film “Stagecoach.” According to author Garry Wills’ 1998 book, “John Wayne’ America: the Politics of Celebrity,” the actor received a chorus of boos when he walked onto the USO stages in Australia and the Pacific Islands. Those audiences were filled with combat veterans. Wayne, in his mid-30s, was not one of them.

Being drafted or enlisting was going to have a serious impact on his rising star. Depending on how long the ԝаr lasted, Wayne reportedly worried he might be too old to be a leading man when he came home.Other actors, both well-established and rising in fame, rushed off to do their part. Clark Gable joined the Army Air Forces and, despite the studios’ efforts to get him into a motion picture unit, served as an aerial ɡսոոеr over Europe. Jimmy Stewart was initially ineligible for the draft, given his low weight, but like some amazing version of Captain America, he drank beer until he qualified.

In his 2014 book, “American Titan: Searching for John Wayne,” author Marc Eliot alleges Wayne was having an affair with actress Marlene Dietrich. He says the possibility of losing this relationship was the real reason Wayne didn’t want to go to ԝаr.

But even Dietrich would do her part, smuggling Jewish people out of Europe, entertaining troops on the front lines (she crossed into Germany alongside Gen. George S. Patton) and maybe even being an operative for the Office of Strategic Services.Wayne never enlisted and even filed for a 3-A draft deferment, which meant that if the sole provider for a family of four were drafted, it would cause his family undue hardship. The closest he would ever come to Worւԁ Wаr II service would be portraying the actions of others on the silver screen.

With his leading man competition fighting the ԝаr and out of the way, Wayne became Hollywood’s top leading man. During the ԝаr, Wayne starred in a number of western films as well as Worւԁ Wаr II movies, including 1942’s “Flying Tigers” and 1944’s “The Fighting Seabees.” According to Eliot, Wayne told friends the best thing he could do for the ԝаr was make movies to support the troops. Eventually, the government agreed.

At one point during the ԝаr, the need for more men in uniform caused the U.S. military brass to change Wayne’s draft status to 1-A, fit for duty. But Hollywood studios intervened on his behalf, arguing that the actor’s star power was a boon for ԝаrtime propaganda and the morale of the troops. He was given a special 2-A status, which back then meant he was deferred in “support of national interest.”

The decision not to serve or to avoid it entirely (depending on how you look at the actor) haunted Wayne for the rest of his life. His third wife, Pilar Wayne, says he became a “super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying at home.”After the ԝаr, he made a number of films set in Worւԁ Wаr II, including some of his most famous, like “The Longest Day,” “They Were Expendable” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

When actor John Wayne visited American soldiers in Vietnam in the summer of 1966, he was warmly welcomed. As he spoke to groups and individuals, he was presented gifts and letters from American and South Vietnamese troops alike. This was not the case during his USO tours in 1942 and ’43. Despite his post-ԝаr patriotism, many labeled Wayne a draft dodger for the rest of his life. He succumbed to stomach cancer in 1979. His enduring influence on American media and the perception of American fighting men led President Jimmy Carter to award Wayne the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980

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John Wayne

The meaning of the phrase that John Wayne requested to be engraved on his tombstone.

John Wayne lived his life exactly the way he saw fit, right down till the very end. It’s why his tombstone features an odd, but honest message.In 1979, Wayne’s days were unfortunately numbered. He had last appeared in a film three years prior in The Shootist, and after overcoming lung cancer in the mid-1960s, his bout with stomach cancer was proving to be his ultimate killer.

When making final preparations, John Wayne requested a specific phrase in Spanish to be engraved on his tombstone. The tombstone, to this day, reads, “Feo, Fuerte y Formal.”The phrase means “ugly, strong, and dignified.” We couldn’t think of anything that better fits John Wayne if we tried.

However, that isn’t the only thing that’s transcribed on the acting legend’s tombstone. In 1999, the grave was marked with a quote:“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

John Wayne Converted to Catholicism Late in Life

The 72-year-old acting legend was going through a journey in his final days. Years later, his grandson and Catholic priest, Matthew Muñoz, discussed his grandfather’s transition to Roman Catholicism as he struggled with cancer.“My grandmother, Josephine Wayne Saenz, had a wonderful influence on his life and introduced him to the Catholic world,” said 46-year-old Fr. Muñoz, a priest of the Diocese of Orange. “He was constantly at Church events and fundraisers that she was always dragging him to and I think that, after a while, he kind of got a sense that the common secular vision of what Catholics are and what his own experience actually was, were becoming two greatly different things.”

Further, Muñoz added that his grandfather converting to Catholocism “was one of the sentiment he expressed before he passed on”. The Catholic priest said his grandfather blamed the delay on “a busy life.”According to his grandson, Wayne was a spiritual and Christian man throughout life. This is best evidenced through his written prayers.“He wrote beautiful love letters to God, and they were prayers. And they were very childlike and they were very simple but also very profound at the same time,” Fr. Muñoz said. “And sometimes that simplicity was looked at as naivety but I think there was a profound wisdom in his simplicity.”

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