Few moviegoers remember The Conqueror, a sappy 1956 film about a love affair between Genghis Khan and a beautiful captive princess. But to the families of its stars, John Wayne and Susan Hayward, and of its director-producer, Dick Powell, memories of The Conqueror have begun to acquire nightmarish clarity. The movie was shot from June through August 1954 among the scenic red bluffs and white dunes near Saint George, Utah, an area chosen by Powell for its similarity to the central Asian steppes. At the time it did not seem significant that Saint George was only 137 miles from the atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nev.; the federal government, after all, was constantly reassuring local residents back then that the bomb tests posed no health hazard. Now, 17 years after aboveground nuclear tests were outlawed, Saint George is plagued by an extraordinarily high rate of cancer (PEOPLE, Oct. 1, 1979)—and the illustrious alumni of The Conqueror and their offspring are wondering whether their own grim medical histories are more than an uncommon run of bad luck.
Of The Conqueror’s 220 cast and crew members from Hollywood, an astonishing 91 have contracted cancer, PEOPLE has ascertained. Forty-six of them, including Wayne, Hayward and Powell, have died of the disease. Another star of the film, Pedro Armendariz, survived cancer of the kidney four years after finishing the movie—but killed himself in 1963 at the age of 51 when he learned that he had terminal cancer of the lymphatic system. Says Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah: “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.”
No responsible agency of the federal government will comment for the record on the Conqueror case—or, for that matter, on any private citizen’s complaint about health problems arising from the Nevada tests. The situation for the military is different. In 1977 Cpl. Paul Cooper claimed that his participation in the tests had resulted in leukemia. The Defense Nuclear Agency says a PEOPLE story on Corporal Cooper persuaded it to set up a program to contact other military personnel who may have been affected. (The DNA toll-free number is 800-336-3068.) But the DNA refers nonmilitary complaints to other federal agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all of which refuse to discuss the situation. (Their ostensible reason is that they had nothing to do with the tests, which were conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC was disbanded in 1974.) Sen. Edward Kennedy’s subcommittee on health has scheduled hearings on the tests in January. Until then the DNA study of military personnel constitutes Washington’s last and ambiguous word on the relationship between test radiation and cancer. “From our research we know the exposure to radiation was very low,” says project spokesman Col. Bill McGee, but he admits: “We’re not in the health effects business—we’re in the defense business.”
Though previously inclined to keep the past buried and their suspicions to themselves, several Conqueror cast members and relatives of cancer victims are now considering a suit against the government for negligence. For a few of them, more than a death in the family is involved. The children of Wayne and Hayward accompanied their parents to the Conqueror location and have already had alarming brushes with cancer. Michael Wayne, 45, developed skin cancer in 1975. His brother Patrick, 41, was operated on for a breast tumor 11 years ago (fortunately it was benign). Tim Barker, 35, a son of Susan Hayward, had a benign tumor removed from his mouth in 1968. “I still smoke a pack a day,” admits Barker. “So who knows just what might have caused it? Smoking doesn’t help. But I’ll tell you, radiation doesn’t help either.” Dr. Ronald S. Oseas of Harbor UCLA Medical Center agrees. “It is known that radiation contributes to the risk of cancer,” he says. “With these numbers, it is highly probable that the Conqueror group was affected by that additive effect.”
The concerned survivors are not antinuke activists; most say their faith in safe nuclear energy is unshaken. What angers them is mounting evidence that the government knew a great deal more about the danger of fallout from the tests than it told. Aboveground nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site went on from January 1951 until August 1963. During that time the Atomic Energy Commission devoted most of its public-information efforts to reassuring apprehensive citizens. One 1955 AEC booklet distributed near the test site, for example, advised: “Your best action is not to be worried about fallout.” Yet Dr. Harold Knapp, the DNA’s adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former member of the Fallout Studies Branch of the AEC, says the experts knew better even then. “The government definitely had a complete awareness of what was going on,” he now says. “To a trained professional, the information contained in some of their once-confidential reports is most shocking.” A recently published report prepared for congressional investigators on the impact of the bomb tests concludes: “All evidence suggesting that radiation was having harmful effects, be it on sheep or on the people, was not only disregarded but actually suppressed…The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.”
No bombs were tested during the actual filming of The Conqueror, but 11 explosions occurred the year before. Two of them were particularly “dirty,” depositing long-lasting radiation over the area. The 51.5-kiloton shot code-named “Simon” was fired on April 25, 1953, and the 32.4-kiloton blast “Harry” went off May 19. (In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13 kilotons.) “Fallout was very abundant more than a year after Harry,” says Dr. Pendleton, a former AEC researcher. “Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much.” Pendleton points out that radioactivity can concentrate in “hot spots” such as the rolling dunes of Snow Canyon, a natural reservoir for windblown material. It was the place where much of The Conqueror was filmed. Pendleton also notes that radioactive substances enter the food chain. By eating local meat and produce, the Conqueror cast and crew were increasing their risk.
One of the first members of the company to make a connection between the film and the fallout was Agnes Moorehead. Her close friend Sandra Gould, who was featured with her on the TV show Bewitched, recalls that long before Moorehead developed the uterine cancer that killed her in 1974, she recounted rumors of “some radioactive germs” on location in Utah, observing: “Everybody in that picture has gotten cancer and died.” As she was dying, she told best friend Debbie Reynolds: “I should never have taken that part.”
Moorehead was not the only one who came to feel that way. Another actress in the film, Jeanne Gerson, 76, contracted skin cancer in 1965. Surgery cured her temporarily, but three years ago, when breast cancer was diagnosed, she underwent a mastectomy and began chemotherapy, which continues today. “I’ve always been convinced that it’s more than a coincidence,” says Gerson, who has hired an attorney to press a class-action suit against the U.S. government. “I hope that the Waynes, the Powells, the ones with the recognizable names, will come forward and say something, perhaps join in our lawsuit.” Gerson recalls a constant wind whipping through the location, setting up dust storms so severe that director Powell (who got lymph cancer and died in 1963 when it spread to his lungs) often wore a surgical mask on the set. Pedro Armendariz Jr. remembers his father’s role as a hard-riding Mongol soldier: “He did take an awful lot of falls and was constantly having to be hosed down due to the heavy dust.” About 60 tons of that dirt—still measurably radioactive, though now below danger levels—were actually brought back to the studio in Culver City for retakes.
To children of the stricken stars, that transplanted earth—now spread around a nearby industrial neighborhood—has become a macabre symbol. “My mother was pathetic at the end,” says Susan Hayward’s son Tim Barker, a Hollywood press agent. “She was in a fetal position, she had lost her swallowing reflex, she had pneumonia and she had lost her hair.” Barker cannot be certain that his mother’s fatal brain tumor—or the skin, breast and uterine cancers she developed in the decade before she died in 1975—were caused by radiation exposure. But he is angry that there is even a question. “I can tell you, this was not a lot of fun,” he says bitterly. “If the government knew that there was a possibility of exposure, why didn’t they just warn us?” Because he was with his mother on the set, Barker is understandably worried. “What do I have to look forward to?” he asks. “Will I have to go through what my mother did?” (Similar suspicions about the cause of Hayward’s death are raised in a current biography of the actress, A Star, Is a Star, Is a Star!, by Christopher P. Andersen, a PEOPLE senior editor.)
Powell’s children have similar anxieties. Television producer Norman Powell, 46, and studio hairdresser Ellen Powell, 42 (both children of Powell’s first wife, Joan Blondell), accompanied their father to Utah. “How dare people not be warned if there is some knowledge of even a potential danger?” Ellen asks. “I’m all for looking into this thing because possibly it could help a few people.” Her brother Norman observes that a lawsuit by the relatives of movie stars could help draw attention to the plight of the 15,000 residents of Saint George. “These poor folks, with no celebrities among them, are just quietly dying out there and nobody cares,” Powell says. “But with the high number of casualties among a Hollywood cast, maybe someone will sit up and take notice.”
The manner in which actors Wayne and Armendariz accepted the news of their fatal cancers was strikingly different except in one regard—neither man seems to have questioned how he contracted the disease or suspected that the atomic tests might have been responsible. After doctors gave him only three months to live, Armendariz returned to a hotel with his wife, Carmen, and asked her to get him a ham sandwich. When she returned, she found him dead; he had shot himself through the heart. “I was in shock, but if you knew Pedro, you’d know that’s just what he would have done,” says Carmen.
When Wayne heard of his friend’s death, son Michael Wayne recalls, he said, “I don’t blame Pete. I’d do the same thing that he did.” Wayne did not, however, choosing instead to fight a long, painful battle against lung, throat and stomach cancers. He died in June 1979. “He was cheerful right through to the end,” says Michael, president of the family’s Batjac Productions. “I think he stayed alive on willpower alone. He didn’t cry over a lot of stuff that went by in the past, things that you can’t do anything about. Suing the government isn’t going to bring my father back.” Hayward’s son Tim Barker agrees, but he hopes the story of The Conqueror’s, grim aftermath will deliver a profoundly cautionary message. “The point is to finally focus public attention,” says Barker. “Over the years a lot of people—government and private industry alike—have been dumping things into the air and water without worrying about the effects. The damage in this case is done. But if enough people get angry about it, maybe they can minimize the harm for the future.”