“The Conqueror” (1956)
Myth: Filming this notorious turkey on a nuclear testing site led to a very high proportion of the cast and crew developing terminal cancer, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendariz, for which producer Howard Hughes later felt so guilty that it contributed to his mental decline.
Reality: A large part of this particular story is, sadly, based in fact. The film, which would otherwise be best remembered for being truly hilariously terrible, featuring a John Wayne performance (as Genghis Khan!) that may prove the absolute last word in miscasting and distractingly inaccurate accents, was largely shot near St. George in Utah. The film set was some 137 miles downwind of the Nevada National Security Site where just a couple years before, extensive nuclear testing had been carried out, but the filmmakers knew of this and were assured by the federal government that there was no danger to public health. In fact, there’s even a photograph that shows Wayne and his two sons fiddling cheerfully with a Geiger counter on set. On location for 13 trying weeks, the cast and crew didn’t even escape the potentially poisonous environment after they returned: producer Howard Hughes had over 60 tons of dirt transported from the area so the Hollywood soundstage would better resemble the footage already shot. Just seven years later, the director, Dick Powell would die of cancer, the same year actor Pedro Armendariz would commit suicide on learning that his cancer too was terminal. Stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead all died of cancer in the ‘70s and though at least some of the deaths may be attributed to smoking (Wayne and Moorehead both were heavy smokers), the fact is by 1981, 91 of the 220 total cast and crew had developed some form of cancer, and 45 had died of the disease (actor John Hoyt would succumb to lung cancer in 1991). In addition, approximately half of the residents of St. George from that period have been diagnosed. To put it in context, a University of Utah doctor suggested that out of 220 people we could expect 30-something cases of cancer. The fact that the number is three times that amount would suggest a correlation between being on that set and contracting the disease.
Producer Howard Hughes allegedly felt so guilty about his decision to shoot where he did (and perhaps over the shoddiness of the film) that he later bought up and suppressed all prints of the film which wasn’t seen again until 1974 when it was shown on TV. In the meantime, screenings of it, along with “Ice Station Zebra,” reportedly became part of Hughes’ nightly entertainment ritual during his shut-in period, which is one of the more eloquent forms of self-torture that we’ve ever heard of.
"Blade Runner" (1982)
Myth: All the brands and companies featured in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece suffered a terrible reversal of fortune thereafter, usually leading to their collapse. Pan Am, which had been the largest US air carrier since 1927, filed for bankruptcy in 1991; Atari which had 70% of the home console market in 1982 suffered total financial collapse and was sold on in 1984; Bell telephone company lost the monopoly it had enjoyed since the late ‘40s; Cuisinart went bankrupt in 1989; and Coca-Cola launched the famously disastrous New Coke in 1985.
Reality: So this one isn’t about the people who participated in the film being cursed, but the brands, which is itself pretty unique. But yes, while many of the companies featured did experience bad times after the film, there were plenty of other factors. Pan Am was so hugely iconic that it became a target for terrorism, culminating in the horrendous 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland which resulted in 270 deaths. This disastrous association, along with a hike in gas prices due to conflicts in the Middle East, led to its shuttering. The Bell antitrust ruling actually had happened just before filming began on "Blade Runner," so it was already in motion, while Atari was the biggest company in the market, and so was the most adversely affected, by the 1983 video game crash , though the name lives on now as pretty much a wholly different entity (same goes for Cuisinart). Most obviously running counter to the notion, though, is that although New Coke was a huge disaster that could have sunk the company, it didn’t, and not only did it not, but Coca-Coal went on to enjoy the strongest growth record of, we believe, any company in American history, so, yeah. Also smaller brands that were featured like TDK, Koss and Joven perfumes may not be as big as they once were, but are still around to this day.
Myth: Everyone who gets cast as, or even reads for, the lead in this as-yet-unfilmed fish-out-of-water comedy dies prematurely, and before filming can begin. “Victims” of the curse include John Belushi, Sam Kinison, John Candy and Chris Farley and even, at a stretch, ex-”SNL” head writer Michael O’Donoghue and Phil Hartman.
Reality: “Atuk” is a screenplay that’s been knocking around since the early '80s and is based on the satirical novel “The Incomparable Atuk” by Mordecai Richler. It’s an unlikely basis for a curse, as opposed to all the horror movies that have them, as the film is a comedy that details the titular Alaskan’s struggle to fit in with life in the Big City—a kind of “Coming to America” but with an Inuit hero. Nonetheless, the aforementioned names were all connected with it on one way or another, and all did die. Belushi was reportedly on the verge of taking the role when he died of a drug overdose in 1982, after which stand-up comedian Sam Kinison filmed some scenes for it in 1988, but allegedly left the production not liking the direction the movie was taking. There are reports that he was in talks to rejoin the project at the time of his 1992 fatal car accident. John Candy was then approached, but died of a heart attack in 1994, the same year that writer Michael o’Donoghue, who had ties to many of these names through ‘SNL,’ and reportedly read and passed the script on to several of them, also died, of a cerebral hemorrhage. And finally, Chris Farley was reportedly on the point of signing on, and also encouraged his friend Phil Hartman to read for a supporting role, when he died of a drug overdose in 1997. Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998. These deaths are undeniably tragic, but aside from the horrible and only tangentially related demise of Hartman, all were either natural causes, accidents or drug overdoses, often of men whose hard-partying lifestyles (as well as their being overweight) were a matter of record. In fact, it’s telling that rumors of a similar curse sprang up around the still-unfilmed “The Confederacy of Dunces” too, which features an overweight male protagonist and was also allegedly a one-time vehicle for Belushi, then Candy, then Farley. Still, the “Atuk Curse” is known well enough for director Adam McKay to make several references to it on the commentary track to “Anchorman,” in which he pitches an “Eskimo in New York” comedy to Will Ferrell, who repeatedly turns it down.
“The Birth of a Nation”(1915)
Myth: President Woodrow Wilson himself endorsed the film saying, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Reality: While it is a depressing fact that “The Birth of a Nation,” with its utterly revolting race politics and propagandist portrayal of the “heroic” Ku Klux Klan was in fact the first film shown in the White House, and that then-President Woodrow Wilson did actually watch it, current opinion is that the quote above and the stories of his approving of the film were largely unfounded and disseminated by Thomas Dixon Jr., author of the play “The Clansman” on which D.W. Griffith had based his film. In fact, Dixon, whom Griffith could not pay in full for the rights and so reluctantly took a 25% cut off the back end, had a very vested interest in continuing to promote the film as aggressively as possible and it paid off, making him a very rich man and reportedly one of the overall best paid authors for any single work made into a motion picture. Dixon, who had known Wilson in college, pushed the White House association further even going so far as to label the film “Federally Endorsed,” but we’ve little reliable record of Wilson’s direct response until after the controversies surrounding it had grown and he wrote referring to it as “the unfortunate production.” It’s mild enough criticism of a film that sparked widespread protest at the time and in the years since has become mainly the province of film historians with strong stomachs for unapologetic racism and incitement to violence (Griffith’s filmmaking innovations do make it a landmark in the development of modern cinematic language). But better a mild expression of disapproval than the all-out endorsement Wilson had been accused of, we suppose.