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Skeletons in the Corporate Closet: RKO Pictures


As its movie died in the box office, its cast and crew were dying from production.

Chances are, you never saw The Conqueror. RKO Pictures' sprawling epic of a film, The Conqueror won't be found in many classic collections, nor is it considered vastly underrated by critics or cinephiles. No, by almost every account, The Conqueror is an unmitigated disaster.

The film chronicles the rise of a young Mongol chieftain by the name of Temujin -- later known as Genghis Khan -- and his battles with rival clans for control of the Gobi Desert in the early 13th century. While the drama and exploits that come with the birth of the Mongol Empire would make for great cinema in capable hands, this cinematic tale is hamstrung by a lamentable casting choice for the infamous Asian tyrant: John Wayne. The dialogue, already stilted and wonky, can be summed up in the film's tagline: "I am Temujin... Barbarian... I fight! I love! I conquer... like a Barbarian!"

Now imagine that awful line voiced in Wayne's barely concealed midwestern drawl.

With an estimated budget of $6 million to $8 million -- bankrolled by RKO's eccentric and bungling manager, Howard Hughes -- the film fared poorly at the box office. But despite its limited run in theaters -- not to mention Hughes snatching up every copy and shielding them from public view for years -- The Conqueror gained much notoriety. Not for its terrible story, not for its squandered budget. But because its production risked the lives of 220 cast and crew members with lethal levels of radioactive material.

The film was shot over the course of a blazing summer in 1954 along the red bluffs and scrubby flatlands of St. George, Utah. Given the arid plain's similarity to central Asia, producer Hughes and director Dick Powell conceded that it would serve as an adequate location. Unfortunately, production commenced 137 miles downwind from an atomic testing range in Nevada's Yucca Flats. No less than 11 atomic explosions occurred there the year before, two of which scattered ample amounts of radioactive material throughout the area. The nukes, nicknamed Simon and Harry, were several times larger than the 13 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

According to People's exposé on the film's devastating aftereffects, Dr. Robert C. Pendleton -- director of radiological health at the University of Utah and former member of the Atomic Energy Commission -- stated the fallout was "abundant" and likely collected in the windblown areas where much of The Conqueror was filmed. He added that the radioactive material could have also entered the food chain, and if the extended visitors sampled the local meat and produce, their chance of being contaminated would have increased.

But increasing chances of contamination wasn't a problem -- Hughes had that covered. Rather than film in the same location for retakes, Hughes shipped 60 tons of the radioactive ground back to the Culver City studio. Sixty tons of dirt over 400 miles. You do the math.

At the time of the article's publication, 91 members of the cast and crew -- including leads John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, stuntmen Chuck Roberson and Bernie Gozier, and director Powell -- each contracted various forms of cancer in the years following production. Powell died from stomach cancer, Moorehead succumbed to uterine cancer, and Hayward battled brain and lung cancer -- the latter of which Wayne famously fought. Dr. Pendleton concluded, "With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic," adding, "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."

And that's not even counting the numerous extras hired to form the Mongol horde. According to a story featured in Montana's New West by Clint Wardlow, no one has kept a record on their death rate.

In fact, records are pretty scarce on the whole Conqueror fiasco. No one at RKO's east or west coast offices was willing to comment on the matter when contacted by Minyanville, as the studio's numerous partners and owners -- including Disney (DIS), General Tire and Rubber Company, which is now GenCorp (GY), and Paramount (CBS) -- have shuffled RKO around for decades, to the point of it having very little in common with its Orson Wellian era.

Nevertheless, in keeping the RKO name, the studio is not only associated with bygone classics like King Kong and Citizen Kane, it has unwittingly aligned itself with a dark and tragic tale in Hollywood's unusual history.

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