By Alberto Cano.- In Hollywood, many times things have not been done well, not even in matters as elementary as security in filming. He is well remembered for all recent cases such as the death of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was accidentally shot by Alec Baldwin, but looking back, we find negligence that ended the life of up to more than 40 people.
The conqueror of Mongolia, a film about Genghis Khan starring the mythical John wayne whose filming near an atomic testing site resulted in one of the greatest tragedies in film memory.
The conqueror of Mongolia was shot in the early 1950s in Utah, in a desert less than 200 kilometers from the Yucah Flat area where the United States Atomic Energy Commission was testing nuclear weapons. Although its producer, Howard Hughes, initially intended to record it in the locations where the story was set, being in the middle of the Cold War context made it completely unfeasible to move the filming to Asian locations. In addition, being also in a few years where the consequences of the use of atomic energy were not yet precise, meant that not given enough importance when filming near a place where 11 atomic bombs were detonated in 1953 alone.
Before filming began, Hughes asked the Defense Nuclear Agency about the dangers of filming in this location, from where they pointed out that it would be no problem to bring a large team of people there and shoot for several weeks. But it was not the case. As it is an area with strong winds, the toxic dust had settled on the desert sands, a material to which all those involved in the production of the film were exposed for many days.
In addition, we are talking about an adventure film full of chases on horseback, battles and tumbling on the floors where it was inevitable to end up in dust up to the top. But no one knew how to prevent possible consequences, even with Geiger meters that gave high readings of radioactivity in the area. In fact, in some of the images that emerged from the recordings you can see John Wayne with his children playing with one of these meters.
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Filming went off without a hitch, but the effects of being exposed to radiation became noticeable over the years. First of all, Victor young, composer of the soundtrack, died the same year as the premiere from a brain tumor. In 1963, Dick powell, director of the film and responsible for other adventure titles of the time such as Duel in the Atlantic, died of lymphoma. That same year, Pedro Armendariz, Mexican actor involved in the film and known by multiple westerns as Fort Apache, committed suicide when he was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. Almost ten years later, in 1974, Agnes moorehead, star of the television series Haunted and another of the actresses of The conqueror of Mongolia, died of lung cancer, as did the actor John Hoyt. And the same with the co-star of the film Susan hayward, who a year later died of a brain tumor.
Not even its protagonist, John Wayne himself, if he spared a fateful death from cancer. In fact, the western star had to cope with two carcinomas. First in 1964, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to have his left lung and two ribs removed. From this disease he got ahead, and even won his Oscar in 1969 for Value of law from Henry Hathaway, but in the late 70s he had to face a new stomach cancer that ended his life on June 11, 1979.
Of course, it was no accident that those involved in The conqueror of Mongolia die of similar causes. This was demonstrated by People magazine in the 80s, which after carrying out extensive research discovered that up to 91 of the 220 members of the film’s crew contracted cancer, of which up to 46 people died. In fact, Michael and Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s sons who accompanied their father during the recordings, were not spared either. Patrick had to undergo surgery for a benign breast tumor and Michael developed skin cancer in 1975 from which he managed to get by. And the same with Tim Barker, the son of Susan Hayward who in 1968 had to remove a benign tumor in his mouth.
Beyond disgrace the movie didn’t even turn out right. It was a critical and box office failure and already at the time it was severely beaten by racism and whitewashing, since John Wayne was made up with a yellow face and Asian features to be able to look like an Asian figure like Genghis Khan.
In addition, the shoot was fraught with problems, such as having to shoot in a desert where it was more than 48 degrees, dealing with flash floods, script improvisations on the fly, problems with exotic animals used during filming or injuries such as the broken jaw of actor Pedro Armendariz after falling off a horse. Without a doubt, one of the blackest films in the history of Hollywood, whose negligence in its production cost much more than a simple failure at the box office. If you are interested in discovering it, is available on streaming platforms such as Prime Video or Filmin.