On-screen, movies often portray all sorts of dangers, whether they involve shootouts, explosions, zombies, or even evil leprechauns who make terrible puns. However, filming those movies is supposed to be pretty safe. You don’t expect to be injured, or even killed, on the set of a movie.
Unfortunately, it does happen. Whether it was due to negligence, incompetence, or simply not giving a damn, some movie productions have proven to be downright dangerous, even lethal.
10. Across the Border
We should start at the beginning, with the earliest known death to occur while filming a movie in the US and, in fact, we’re not dealing with just one fatality, but two.
This happened all the way back in 1914, before Hollywood became the central hub of American filmmaking. The Colorado Motion Picture Company was shooting a western titled Across the Border, using a section of the Arkansas River in Cañon City, Colorado, as a stand-in for the Rio Grande. Their leading lady was Grace Forman, known professionally as Grace McHugh.
At one point, McHugh was supposed to cross the river on horseback, but her horse stumbled and she fell into the water and immediately headed downstream. A brave cameraman named Owen Carter leaped to her rescue, but even though he was a strong swimmer and the river was only a few feet deep, the current was so powerful that it swept both of them away to their watery doom. It wasn’t until days later that their bodies were recovered, miles away from where they disappeared.
9. The Conqueror
There are two reasons why the 1956 epic The Conqueror is remembered nowadays. The first is because it features one of, if not the most notorious miscast in Hollywood history – that of John Wayne playing 13th century Mongol warlord Genghis Khan. The other is far more serious and controversial – the movie was filmed partly in the Escalante Desert in Utah, downwind of a nuclear testing site. The cast and crew were exposed to nuclear fallout which may have had an adverse effect on their health and even caused some of their deaths.
John Wayne himself died of cancer. So did this movie’s leading lady, Susan Hayward, as well as the director, Dick Powell. According to a 1980 report, 91 people of the 220 cast and crew members had contracted cancer, and 46 of them died from it. Was this because of The Conqueror?
That’s where the controversy comes in because there is no consensus. Some argue that the rate of cancer was in line with the national average. John Wayne, in particular, was hardly surprising since he smoked several packs a day. But other medical experts think that out of a group of 220, you would only expect 30 or so cases. Then there are also all the Native Paiute people who worked as extras and were not counted towards the total, plus special cases like actor Pedro Armendariz who committed suicide after finding out that he had terminal cancer so he, too, was not counted.
The production of The Conqueror highlighted a much bigger issue, that of downwinders – entire communities that lived downwind of nuclear testing sites and were exposed to dangerous fallout and the effect this had on their health – an issue that remains far from settled.
8. Noah’s Ark
In 1928, as the movie industry was just beginning to make the transition from the silent era to the “talkies,” Warner Bros. wanted to go big with a part-talkie, meaning a silent movie that included some scenes with sound. They selected an epic disaster movie which was a modern retelling of the story of Noah’s ark titled, you guessed it, Noah’s Ark. To direct, the studio lined up a young and inexperienced filmmaker named Michael Curtiz, who was still a decade-and-a-half away from winning the Best Director Oscar for Casablanca.
Curtiz understood the task that had been given to him. Make it epic! Don’t be afraid to splash out! As the poster of the movie said, it was supposed to be “the spectacle of the ages.”
As you might expect, a film titled Noah’s Ark is going to have a Great Flood scene. Since the studio wanted something big, Curtiz brushed aside suggestions of using miniatures and, instead, opted to make it as authentic as possible. Therefore, in order to film the flood scene, which was intended as the climax of the movie, the director used dozens of extras and a reported 600,000 gallons of water to simulate the biblical catastrophe.
Quite predictably, the film crew had little control over the overpowering deluge of water. It is said that three extras drowned during the scene, another needed their leg amputated, and dozens of others suffered broken bones and other injuries. However, this might be Hollywood legend as the true extent of the loss of life has never been properly documented. Even so, one thing was for certain. After Noah’s Ark, Hollywood enacted new stunt safety regulations, so that a scene like that could never be filmed again.
This is the most recent entry on this list, a sign that, even though safety standards in filmmaking have improved, they are still far from perfect. On October 21, 2021, while filming the movie Rust, actor Alec Baldwin used a revolver as a prop, except that it contained a live round and it discharged and hit cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died in the hospital later that same day.
The New Mexico Occupational Health and Safety Bureau fined the production company a maximum of $137,000 for several safety violations, including ignoring two misfires that occurred prior to the fatal shooting. Meanwhile, the official police report included testimony from multiple crew members who claimed that they witnessed examples of negligence involving the weapons on set.
Since this is a recent event, some of the investigations and the multiple lawsuits that have arisen in the wake of the tragedy are still ongoing as authorities try to determine who was at fault for the accident.
6. Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story
One common thread you will notice in most of these stories is that hardly anyone ever gets punished. The studios and production companies pay out for civil suits, but that’s about it. That changed in 2015 when director Randall Miller became the first US filmmaker in history to actually go to prison for a film-related death.
His sentence was due to his involvement with the unfinished 2014 biographical drama Midnight Rider: The Gregg Allman Story, starring William Hurt. On February 20, 2014, part of the cast and crew was doing a camera test on a railroad trestle bridge above the Altamaha River. They thought it was abandoned, except that it wasn’t and, as a freight train came around the corner, the crew had less than a minute to get out of the way. Basically, it turned into the scene from Stand By Me, except that not everyone made it out in time. Twenty-seven-year-old camera assistant Sarah Jones was struck and killed instantly by the train, while dozens of others sustained injuries. In the investigation that followed, the blame was passed around a lot, as it became unclear who knew that the railway was still in use and who obtained the proper permissions to use it for filming. Ultimately, director Randall Miller pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison plus eight years of probation.
Let’s say you decide to make a movie inspired by a real event from the 19th century when some rich eccentric industrialist decided to get a steamship over an isthmus by disassembling it and carrying it overland from one river to another in the jungles of Peru. Do you A) use a model and, perhaps, film in a studio because it is a lot easier and safer, or do you B) go to the jungles of Peru and insist on using a real-life steamer? If you are Werner Herzog, then the answer is B, but that is only the beginning of the production woes for his 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo.
For starters, Herzog’s ship weighed 320 tons, which was almost 11 times heavier than the real steamboat used a century earlier. The original ship had also been split into over a dozen parts to make it easier to carry, but the director insisted that his vessel stayed in one piece because it looked better on camera. In order to accomplish this feat, Herzog employed over a thousand indigenous extras as laborers.
Given the large number of people involved in the production and the fact that most of it occurred in the remote Peruvian jungles, some deaths were unavoidable due to disease. But some of the other “mishaps” included a raid by the Amahuaca people, where one man was shot in the neck with an arrow and his wife in the stomach, two plane crashes, one canoe drowning, and, most gruesome of all, a self-amputation when a logger got bit by a snake and had to cut off his own foot with his chainsaw.
4. The Crow
Arguably, the most famous death that occurred while filming a movie was when Brandon Lee was accidentally shot and killed on the set of the 1994 dark fantasy The Crow. After all, while deaths on set happen from time to time, the death of the movie’s leading man is a far more singular event.
On March 31, 1993, while filming a scene, Brandon Lee walked into a room where another actor shot him with what was supposed to be a blank. To everyone’s horror, Lee immediately collapsed with a .44 Magnum bullet lodged in his abdomen and he died in the hospital a few hours later.
His death was caused by negligence when it came to handling firearms. The gun that had delivered the fatal shot had been used in multiple scenes, sometimes with dummy cartridges and sometimes with blanks. A dummy cartridge looks just like the real thing except that it contains no powder or primer so it is inert. Because it looks more realistic, it is often used in close-ups, whereas the blank is the exact opposite – it has the powder and primer, but no bullet. Therefore, it gives you the flash and the bang without a projectile.
In an effort to save money, the film’s crew made their own dummy cartridges from real bullets, but they didn’t do a very good job. They got rid of the powder but left the primer inside. Then, during filming, the primer went off with enough power to load a bullet into the barrel. Finally, during the fatal scene, the gun was loaded with blanks, which had the same amount of propelling power as a real cartridge, and the two combined behaved as one very real and very lethal shot.
The movie Roar was supposed to be a fun adventure comedy with a well-meaning message about the conservation of African wildlife. However, the funniest thing about the movie, albeit unintentionally, was the title card at the beginning, which proudly stated that “no animal was harmed in the course of its production.”
This was true, but it didn’t say anything about humans, though…and for good reason. Roar has sometimes been called “the most dangerous movie ever made.” Estimates regarding how many people were injured on set are all over the place, but they seem to include at least 70 cast and crew members and, possibly, upwards of 100. And keep in mind, this refers to different people, not different injuries. Many on set suffered multiple injuries, sometimes during the same day of filming, and the film was specifically made with non-union talent to get over those pesky safety regulations.
What exactly made this movie so hazardous? Well, that’s an easy one – it featured over a hundred wild animals, mainly big cats, and very few people capable of keeping them in check. Miraculously, nobody died during production, which is why this isn’t higher, but the cornucopia of injuries went from one extreme to the other. Some only suffered minor scratches or bites, whereas actress Melanie Griffith needed reconstructive surgery after a lioness damaged her face, and cinematographer Jan de Bont got 120 stitches in his head after being partially scalped by one of the big cats.
2. Such Men Are Dangerous
Nowadays, the 1930 movie Such Men Are Dangerous is all but forgotten. There are a couple of memorable fun facts about it – it was directed by Kenneth Hawks, the brother of famed Classic Hollywood director Howard Hawks, and it featured a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi. The other fact is not-so-fun because, even today, it represents the worst air accident in movie history.
On January 2, 1930, three planes carrying eleven men took off from San Pedro to film a flying sequence off the coast of Southern California. Only one plane carrying pilot and stuntman Fred Osborne made it back. The other two suffered a mid-air collision which killed all ten men on board, including the director, Kenneth Hawks, the assistant director, four cameramen, two pilots, and two prop men.
Only five of the bodies were ever recovered, and the exact reason for the crash remains a mystery to this day.
1. The Twilight Zone Movie
It’s hard to think of a more dangerous movie production than one where five people, including the director, were charged with multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter.
During the early 80s, producers Steven Spielberg and John Landis wanted to make a movie version of the mindbending sci-fi horror series The Twilight Zone. It was an anthology, which included four distinct segments, each directed by a different filmmaker.
The segment filmed by John Landis featured actor Vic Morrow as a bitter, racist man who blamed all his woes on Jewish, Black, and Asian people. He then gets transported to various points in time, such as Nazi-occupied France, rural Alabama, and the Vietnam War, where he gets mistaken for each of the minorities he despised in turn, so he could experience their suffering firsthand.
The tragedy struck while filming the scenes for the Vietnam War when Morrow and two child actors, Renee Shin Chen and Myca Dinh Le, were supposed to escape a pursuing helicopter. However, all the pyrotechnics caused the pilot to lose control and crash the helicopter into the three actors blades first, killing them instantly in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable.
Landis plus the assistant producer, the pyrotechnics guy, the production manager, and the pilot all faced criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter, although they were all ultimately found “not guilty.”