Friday, May 22, 2009

Other: Did Howard Hughes Kill John Wayne?

For reasons which have since become unclear to me, tonight I decided to watch the 1956 film The Conqueror, in which John Wayne stars as, of all people, Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. I barely lasted half an hour.

I am not making this up.

As it was made in the '50s, still the height of the era of the studio system, when actors were on contract to a studio and played the parts the studio heads told them to play, dammit!, you might think that someone had forced Wayne into the role. No, Wayne cast himself as Genghis Khan. I guess he wanted to try to stretch his range. As it turns out, he just wasn't that limber a guy.

The story goes that the script for the film had been moldering in a pile of unproduced screenplays. Wayne had one picture left on a three-picture deal with RKO, then owned by the infamous Howard Hughes, who had so mismanaged the studio that he sold it before The Conqueror saw its release. Writer/director Dick Powell tried to talk Wayne out of making the movie, but the actor was thrilled with the story and approached the role with gusto. While that gusto extended to changing his physical appearance to look (very slightly, as it turned out) like a lean, nomadic, Mongolian warrior on-screen, he didn't really do anything about the accent. The dialogue is bad enough as it is, but when Wayne spouts the drivel with the same languorous pace, the same phonetic pronunciations, and, worst of all, the same bizarre intonation he would use in any Western, your eyes just start to glaze over. What was he thinking???

Unsurprisingly, the film was a commercial failure, and normally the sad history of the film would have ended there, except perhaps to be occasionally exhumed and mocked as one of Wayne's worst pictures and one of the greatest miscast roles in film history. Well, at least until this year's release of Watchmen. Instead the story turns from a tragic joke to an outright tragedy.

The film was mainly shot using the buttes near St George, Utah as a backdrop. (I have no idea if the area resembles the Mongolian steppes, but it's not like any other aspect of the film had any real authenticity, so it's a moot point.) Here's the real problem. St George was downwind of an active above-ground nuclear test site in Nevada. While the cast and crew were aware of the presence of radioactivity on the set, the long-term effects of low-level exposure were still not fully understood and the fallout became a joke to the exhausted people on the set. Worse still, Hughes then shipped tons of dirt from the site back to California for additional photography.

After several of the film's stars, including Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Morehead (whom I will always remember as Samantha's meddling mother on "Bewitched"), and many of the crew members, including director Powell, were diagnosed with cancer over the ensuing decades, people started blaming the deaths on the film's shooting location. 91 of the 220 cast and crew members working on the Utah set had been diagnosed with various malignancies by 1980, when People magazine took a count for an article titled "The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents." According to this Straight Dope column addressing the same topic, only about 30 people in a sample group that size should have contracted the disease. Remember, though, that this was an era where large numbers of people smoked like chimneys and the use of substances we now know to be incredibly toxic was commonplace, so certainly not all the cancers were directly caused by film's production. But triple the normal cancer rate for that era? It's probably not a coincidence.

Hughes became, as we all know, immeasurably unhinged as the years drew on. If stories are to be believed, after the cancer deaths began in earnest, he bought up all the existing prints of the film out of feelings of guilt and kept it from public view for almost two decades.

In more ways than one, the world would have been better off if director Powell had wrenched the script from Wayne's hands and, um, accidentally thrown it in the fireplace.

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