We all make bad decisions and choices sometimes. But unless you’re in a field like medicine – or, apparently, filmmaking – your bad choices are unlikely to kill anyone. Yes, we said filmmaking.
Movie sets are buzzing with often high-risk activity like stunts, exploding scenery and sometimes dangerous on-location shoots. Today, directors and production companies do everything in their power to keep their cast and crew safe. But this wasn’t always the case – and even these days, slipups have been known to occur with disastrous consequences. Throughout the history of cinema, bad decisions were made either for budgetary reasons, scheduling issues, or simply through ill-advised artistic license (when a director wanted to make a shoot as realistic as possible despite obvious risks).
When corners are cut, or when a bad choice is made during filming, people’s lives can be at stake, and we’re not just talking about stunt doubles either. Crew members from extras to movie stars to directors have been killed on-set – simply because someone made the wrong choice while filming. The following are five tragic examples of just such fatalities.
5. Catch-22 (1970)
Catch-22 is a satirical film based on the book by Joseph Heller. While the book itself is darkly humorous, an accident that happened during filming is anything but funny.
Second unit director John Jordan was a daredevil in his pursuit of great on-screen action. He had developed a special helicopter harness that allowed him to take panning shots of mountain slopes in the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). During the filming of that movie, he could be seen hanging eighteen feet below the helicopter to get the perfect shot. During the filming of another James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice, Jordan lived up to the title of the film: He was leaning out of a helicopter to nail a shot when another helicopter flew too close to him, and the rotor blade cut his leg badly enough that it had to be amputated.
But apparently, Jordan had a death wish. During the filming of Catch-22, Jordan declined to wear a safety harness while riding in a plane. This proved to be a fatal mistake. Another plane flew a little too close for comfort and in the force of the gust Jordan was pulled out of an open door. He plummeted 2,000 feet and – unsurprisingly – died from the fall. It seems this risk taker didn’t commonly wear a safety harness on planes, and this was made all the riskier because of his reduced mobility due to the artificial leg.
4. Hell’s Angels (1930)
No one can deny that Howard Hughes was a bit off-kilter, but his obsession with making air battles in his movies appear realistic went a bit too far. Not only were the stunts in his movies real, they even killed a few people in the process.
The real tragedy here is that Hughes hired actual Air Corps veterans to perform the in-air stunts seen in Hell’s Angels. The movie was actually meant to be a way of honoring these guys, and he figured that if anyone could fly these stunts, it would have been these vets. But Hughes was a bit kooky, and so were the stunts he had planned for the film. They were so difficult that four people died during filming and two others were almost killed.
Principle stunt pilot Paul Mantz looked at the final stunt and insisted it was too dangerous to fly it. Hughes, proving yet again that he wasn’t all there, jumped in a plane and flew them himself – and, as Mantz predicted, he ended up crashing the plane. Hughes was seriously injured, ending up with a fractured skull.
Mantz, however, wasn’t so lucky. While he managed to escape Hell’s Angels unscathed, he was later killed during the filming of The Flight of the Phoenix when his thrown-together aircraft split in two and nosed over into the ground, killing him instantly. Considering the aircraft he flew for The Flight of the Phoenix was quite literally thrown together with random bits and parts, it goes to show you just how scary the stunt for Hell’s Angels must have been given that he refused to do it.
3. Noah’s Ark (1928)
Michael Curtiz is best known as the director of Casablanca, but not so well known is the fact that early on in his movie career he sent several extras to their deaths. He was considered extremely proficient in coming in under budget and ahead of schedule – a great thing for anyone in any field. However, as we’ve seen in Noah’s Ark, the ends may not always justify the means.
In order to meet deadlines, Curtiz decided to cut corners in the flood scene for Noah’s Ark. For one thing, he refused to use miniatures and overlays to create the scene, insisting that real people had to be used. And in order to create the flood scene, it meant dropping gallons and gallons of water over the extras while filming. And here’s the real kicker – none of them knew it would be happening. According to Curtiz, they would just “have to take their chances.”
Take their chances they did, and the gamble didn’t pay off: Extras and crew ended up getting knocked into the water and thrashed around for hours. An actress caught pneumonia and one of the actors broke his ribs. In total, at least three extras drowned and one lost a leg.
2. Midnight Rider (2014)
Midnight Rider is a planned biographical drama about Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers. On February 20, 2014, the crew were filming a scene on a bridge in Wayne County, Georgia when a train crossed the bridge and struck camera assistant Sarah Jones who was killed. Seven other crew members were also injured and taken to the hospital.
The night before she died, Jones had told her father that she was “nervous about a few things” and mentioned that other crew members kept asking her questions when they should have known more than she did. It’s said that during shooting, a voice warned them that in the event a train appeared, everyone had 60 seconds to clear the tracks. They were two stories above water, and the train was almost as wide as the trestle itself. The only escape route was to run toward the oncoming train and hopefully reach the shore before the 60 mph train reached them.
Jones had apparently tried to find shelter on the gangplank, but the train hit the bed and mattress being used as a prop, and it sent debris flying, likely hitting her.
Executive Producer Nick Gant denied negligence, claiming that the crew was extremely qualified and be blamed the railway company for the accident. However, the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office released an incident report on February 24th that stated the production company had been denied permission to film on the train trestle.
1. Twilight Zone The Movie (1983)
The Twilight Zone is a well loved and truly creepy television show, and fans were excited when a movie version was in the works. But while filming the big-screen adaptation of the dark sci-fi show, there was a tragedy so great it’s hard to believe it’s not part of the show itself. But no, it’s very real, and the accident ended up killing two people in very gruesome ways.
The movie was made up of four stories, three based on episodes of the original series and one written by co-producer John Landis (Landis was working alongside Steven Spielberg). In his story, Vic Morrow, an actor best known for playing villains, was cast as the main character. The story required Asian children, but due to the nature of filming, Landis was unable to get children to work on the film legally – it was deemed too dangerous to shoot one particular scene at night. So Landis did what he had to do to secure two Asian children for filming.
Thanks to some networking, Landis was able to get two children from friends of friends, Renee and My-Ca. My-Ca was apparently a very outgoing 7-year old, and when told he had the opportunity to be in a film, he jumped up and down yelling, “I like it! I like it!”
During the scene that was deemed too dangerous to shoot at night with children, the helicopter (whose pilot couldn’t see because of the explosions going off, but chose not to say anything about being blinded) lost control. In the scene, Morrow was carrying the two children through water, and dropped Renee. When he tried to grab at her, the helicopter’s right skid slammed into her, killing her instantly. The rotor then ripped Morrow’s head off, as well as the head, shoulder, and arm of 7-year old My-ca.