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Atomic Rage

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'The Conqueror' and other bombs

By Bob Harris

ONE OF THE funniest, strangest, and saddest movies of all time is RKO's 1956 epic The Conqueror, starring John Wayne, certified American Hero, as ... Genghis Khan.

Believe it or not, that's the sanest part of the movie.

At least John Wayne could ride a horse. The Tartar queen who steals Khan's heart is played by Susan Hayward, a pale Irish woman with bright red hair. Imagine Nicole Kidman trying to pass for Connie Chung and you've pretty much got the idea. Khan's mother is played by Agnes Moorehead, who went on to play Samantha's mother on Bewitched. And Genghis Khan's "blood brother" is played by Pedro Armendariz, a Mexican heartthrob who doesn't look remotely related to John Wayne or the Mongols.

Bizarre enough? We haven't even started.

Ever try to cast an entire horde? The producers couldn't quite come up with several hundred actual Mongolians to ride along as Khan's rampaging minions, so they hired ... a bunch of American Indians.

One of the most jarring moments in the entire film arrives about halfway through, when two actual Chinese guys appear briefly as extras. After a full hour of trying to convince yourself that John Wayne and this weird menagerie of Europeans, Mexicans, and American Indians are all from Mongolia, actual Asians look positively otherworldly.

Given the Cold War politics of 1956, everybody couldn't exactly fly to Mongolia to film the thing. Instead, they decided to substitute ... Utah.

Enamored with Utah's Snow Canyon area, director Dick Powell shot most of the film in the same exact chunk of the Utah desert. So if you watch closely, there are several spots where Wayne and Armendariz ride some great distance and wearily dismount ... almost exactly where they started. Man, it's fantastic. Trust me. You've got to rent this thing sometime. It's a freakin' laugh riot.

The Conqueror was such a colossal disaster that RKO never recovered. The Postman and Waterworld were bad, but Kevin Costner still hasn't wiped out an entire studio. Yet.

THE CONQUEROR was also a disaster in another, much more horrifying way. The town of St. George, where the cast and crew spent much of their time, and Snow Canyon, where most of The Conqueror was filmed, were about 100 miles downwind of the Nevada Test Site. That's where the U.S. government tested various atomic weapons.

The government didn't bother to warn anybody about the fallout.

So the cast and crew of The Conqueror spent three solid months subjected to contaminated air, food, and water.

The result?

John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Dick Powell--all died of cancer; Pedro Armendariz committed suicide while dying of cancer. By 1980, when People magazine did a head count, at least 91 members of the cast and crew had contracted cancer. People never found out how many of the Indian extras were afflicted.

The town of St. George suffered a similar fate. Uninformed of the danger, and exposed in their homes for years instead of months, the residents of St. George eventually contracted cancers in staggering numbers. They were ordinary folks, just like you and me.

And they were expendable.

St. George is now a popular tourist gateway to Bryce Canyon and Zion National parks. Utah's Web page now refers to St. George as "Utah's Hot Spot." Nobody seems to catch the irony.

OK, India and Pakistan have now tested some big big bangs, and everyone's worried about how their future nuclear stuff might visit all sorts of horror on their enemies. But how about what they've already done to some of their own people? India tested its nuclear weapons within literally walking distance from several small villages.

And already hundreds of Indians are showing some of the classic symptoms of radiation poisoning.

Officials say the sick folks are just looking for a handout. Which doesn't explain why livestock is keeling over as well. Even if Pakistan and India avoid a hot war, innocent casualties of their conflict have already begun to mount. But they're ordinary folks.

Expendable.

If you or I knowingly, recklessly, and needlessly kill a single innocent person, we then stand guilty of manslaughter and deserving of contempt. Does it not follow that if a government knowingly, recklessly, and needlessly kills an innocent person, or, indeed, hundreds of innocents--in fact, the very people said government is supposed to represent --then this government stands equally guilty and contemptible?

Humankind will someday abolish nuclear weapons.

Or vice versa.

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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