Movies aren’t what one thinks of when you mention life-threatening lives of work but it can happen. Many an actor has run into an accident on set and hurt them a lot. In the old days, before stunt work was commonplace, actors were in serious danger of injury or even worse. Back then, you couldn’t CGI a train going off the tracks; you had to actually do it. Martial artists are more common for injury; Jackie Chan has been through accidents that should have killed him yet continues to work. Sadly, some have paid for it as Brandon Lee was killed in an awful accident on the set of The Crow and others have died as well. There have been cases where one or two actors nearly suffered deadly accidents as well. For example, Isla Fisher nearly drowned on a scene for Now You See Me.
But other movies are even bigger as it wasn’t just one or two actors in a big scene. Rather, practically the entire cast was in massive danger at one point or another. The set can be a challenge with bad weather or building but also some of the action can be truly insane. Frankly, it’s astounding some of these movies didn’t have an even higher body count given the dangers they possessed. In at least one case, the long-term damage would be truly devastating. Here are fifteen of the most dangerous films ever made that had the entire cast in major danger and amazing they got out alive.
15. The Towering Inferno
A reason so many directors prefer CGI fire these days is because, no matter how well you can try and control it, real flames have a tendency to do what they want. That was evident when Irwin Allen put together this all-star disaster movie in which the world’s tallest skyscraper catches on fire. Director John Guillermin decided to shoot the movie in sequence so the actors looked believably haggard and worn out as the ordeal went on. That meant they didn’t have much of a break from the stunts of fires coming through hallways and causing explosions. Controlled or not, fire is very dangerous, and more than once, it came close to breaking out faster than anticipated at actors who weren’t in protective clothing. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen insisted on doing their own stunts to hang from harnesses and other dangers while stuntmen handled the more intense scenes. The big one was the movie’s climax where the top floor ballroom is flooded to douse the fires. The cast truly was tied down and forced to endure thousands of gallons of water blasting around them with paramedics ready to jump in at the slightest sign of real injury. Remarkably, no one was, but still astounding how many major stars were risking themselves for this hit.
14. The Wizard of Oz
You wouldn’t think of this classic movie as one that had the cast in danger but it really was. Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man but suffered a nearly fatal allergic reaction to the silver paint used and was hospitalized. Jack Haley took on the role with a different style of paint, but suffered some scrapes from his costume. Ray Bolger nearly twisted an ankle during a dance number but kept right on going despite the pain. Margaret Hamilton suffered an allergic reaction to her own green paint as the Wicked Witch. Much bigger was how a trap door for a “disappearance” worked badly and Hamilton suffered burns from a fire that ignited her makeup, landing her in the hospital for a few weeks. The actors playing the flying monkeys suffered a huge amount of bruises and scrapes when a winch holding them snapped without warning. Even Terry, the dog who played Toto, was accidentally stepped on. It may be magic on screen, but Oz was truly a nightmare to shoot.
13. The Hunger Games
It makes sense that a movie series about a killer competition would get pretty dangerous in real life. The obvious stuff was in stunt people handling the tough times but Jennifer Lawrence insisting on doing many of her own stunts added a new dimension as the actress suffered numerous scrapes and bruises. Bigger was the second movie as the cast swam in some very cold and dirty waters, several getting hard bumps from the diving and ear infections with Lawrence also suffering a broken eardrum from an explosion. Liam Hemsworth, Michelle Forbes and Sam Calfin were all injured doing some major action scenes and several of the other cast members got hard stuff too. The most dangerous was for the third movie, a scene of Katniss escaping a burning tunnel. A fog machine malfunctioned and Lawrence inhaled massive amounts of smoke and passed out. Luckily, cast members realized she was lagging behind too much and were able to rescue her before it got too serious. Throw in the usual risks of such a movie (explosions, crashing debris, running through a collapsing hallway) and the often long hours needed to pull these off and it’s clear these hits were no game on set to be sure.
12. Inglourious Basterds
This wild Quentin Tarentino film is among the writer/director’s better efforts. Much of the plot revolves around the team of commandos taking on Nazis but the climax is centered on a screening of a Nazi propaganda film. Soshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French resistance fighter, plans to burn the entire theater down with several high-ranking Nazis (including Hitler himself) in attendance. Tarentino handled that main sequence with the idea of a screen catching on fire and going to the theater, only about 25 feet high. However, as many a special effects man knows, fire has a tendency to do its own thing. Thus, the flames began to rage out of control, coming close to singing the actors. Tarentino couldn’t call cut as this was the only set they had, they had one shot at this and so kept on filming the big action sequence despite the flames getting higher. It ended up nearly burning some actors and the main platform collapsing before the shot was finished. It was the highlight of the movie, but remarkable how it almost became a real inferno.
11. The Revenant
When actors signed up for this movie, they assumed they’d have a little outdoor shooting and most of the stuff in the studio. Instead, Alejandro G. Inarritu decided to shoot the movie in incredibly remote areas in Canada and Argentina. The temperatures were often below freezing and Leonardo DiCaprio would cite it as one of the worst shoots he ever endured. He and others had to put up with constantly being dunked in freezing waters, running over hills, action scenes that risked their bodies, and just generally drove them crazy. It got to the point where Tom Hardy came to Inarritu and erupted over how the director was risking them like this. In return, Inarritu allowed Hardy to strangle him, an image that quickly became a t-shirt. Various cast and crew left the shoot, unable to take it and it required a level of toughness to keep up. The movie did succeed, winning DiCaprio his overdue Oscar which he deserved for suffering as much as his character did.
James Cameron’s temperament on movie sets is rather legendary and this is a prime example. This is the movie that had Cameron being called “the scariest man in Hollywood” with crew members getting shirts slamming him. Cameron was a dictator on set, screaming at cast and crew and having no issues with putting stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet into freezing cold water. There was also the massive set for the ship that risked lives by dumping thousands of gallons of water onto the cast for the sinking scenes. More than one stunt person nearly drowned for real, underestimating the danger of the set crushing them down. The cold also created outbreaks of the flu and even kidney infection, including Winslet. One crew member became so ticked that he spiked the soup and sent 50 people, including Bill Paxton and Cameron, to the hospital. It did turn out okay in the end with the movie one of the biggest hits of all time and Cameron admitting he went too far. But still notable how shooting this flick almost became a real-life disaster.
9. Mad Max: Fury Road
Watching this smash hit on screen, it’s no wonder it was so incredibly dangerous. George Miller filmed this post-apocalyptic action movie in the African desert, where just standing outside in 150 degree heat could kill someone. That’s not to mention the region was well known for violence with Africa’s various civil wars and reports of bandits in the area, making the shooting far more risky. Throw in Miller’s insistence on having real cars be used for the incredibly complex chase scenes and the danger grew. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron both suffered nearly fatal falls and various bumps and scrapes from the action. Stunt people had to put up with everything from burns from inside flaming cars to a few broken limbs as Miller kept the pressure up majorly. It turned out to be a smash hit movie, but between the action and the heat, Miller seemed to be more than a bit mad in his own right when it came to his actors’ safety.
8. Heaven’s Gate
One of the most legendary bombs in Hollywood history, Michael Cimino’s western exploded to a massive budget thanks to such things as shooting the most feet of film in history. Like any western, utilizing live horses carried dangers, but it was other factors that risked the cast. For example, Cimino insisted on a huge set piece involving a wooden roller skating rink and ignored the tiny fact most of the cast couldn’t skate. Instead, he put them through as many as a hundred takes of the sequence, ignoring the risk of broken limbs and constant falls. The big risk was the movie’s climatic battle scene, which, in Cimino’s original five and a half hour cut, was as long as most movies. This involved racing horses, explosions, bullets flying and more that injured several stuntmen. Making it worse was that the entire field had an irrigation system installed and thus several trips and falls caused by it that could have been more serious. Also, several horses died during the shooting (a reason why movies have those “no animals harmed” credit) and it was a massive case of excess. The film is notable for its mega-flop status and might be karma for how Cimino risked his actors’ lives so much.
The recent remake of the acclaimed Oscar-winning epic was a huge bomb with bad acting and story. However, it did get points in that the CGI made for a far safer shoot than the original 1959 movie had been. With so many sequences, there was severe danger around for everyone. For the ship battle scenes, extras and stuntmen had to handle being dunked in water with debris of ship about that risked lots of injury. Much bigger was the chariot scene as in those days, the only way to make it work was to have real chariots drawn by real horses with Charlton Heston on full display riding his. With chariots crashing about and horses charging, it was no wonder several stuntmen were bruised and one thrown off and nearly trampled. Contrary to legend, no one died during the shooting, but it’s not surprising that story would grow given bits like Stephen Boyd dragged for real behind a chariot. The result was a classic movie and many believe Heston deserved his Oscar just for surviving this shoot.
6. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Terry Gilliam is known for some truly unique and often bizarre movies. But never in his wildest dreams could he have conceived of the absolute insanity this shoot would become. A take on the classic story, it was to star Johnny Depp as a man thrown back in time to meet the legendary “knight” played by Jean Rochefort. The problems started as they were shooting outside a military base in Spain and jets flying overhead with the occasional bomb test. A flash flood hit the set, ruining sets and cameras. Rochefort also suffered a herniated disc from his horse riding and had to be hospitalized. They tried to keep it up, but it was clear he just wasn’t coming back and that, coupled by how the shoot was turning into a disaster, led to it being cancelled. The movie eventually became an acclaimed documentary Lost in La Mancha to show how the attempt to follow the famed character became a dangerous mad quest in its own right.
Not many have heard of this 1982 West German drama but it has gained an infamous reputation for its insane production. The tale of a robber baron who tries to transport a steamship over a rain forest to get to a river. Werner Herzog was known for going wild on shoots, but he saved his best for this. This meant actually pulling a real 320 ton steamship up a real hill in Peru. The sheer logistics of such a thing were a nightmare and injured several people while pushing it down a hill and into rapids. Jason Robards was cast in the lead but developed dysentery early in shooting and had to bow out. Klaus Kinski replaced him and soon driven crazy by what occurred, screaming at people over trivial matters. The weather didn’t help either, but even wilder was that the shoot angered natives in the area who threatened to attack the set. Herzog actually claims the native chief offered to kill Kinski for him and Herzog was seriously tempted to say yes. Many a movie has seen directors and cast fight, but few have driven it close to murder than this.
4. The Abyss
James Cameron once more, this time for his 1989 movie that was groundbreaking in its use of CGI. Working underwater was insane enough but Cameron didn’t help with his incredibly hard direction that had the actors breaking out into rages. The cast and crew endured six months of shooting at an isolated set, often working 70 hours a week. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris had to endure scenes of their characters drowning and came close to doing it for real. For scenes of the rig set collapsing and flooding, Cameron vastly underestimated how much trouble it would take and injured some stuntmen. The constant swimming in the chlorinated water caused divers to endure skin burns and LOSS OF hair. It took its toll as Harris burst out crying and Mastrantonio suffered a complete breakdown, screaming, “We are not animals!” after nearly drowning for a scene that had her topless. Cameron himself has acknowledged it as one of the worst shoots of his entire life and would never do it again. When he can openly admit a shoot was a dangerous nightmare, you know it was bad.
3. Apocalypse Now
It’s been said Francis Ford Coppola was never the same after this movie and you can’t blame him. The fact he was shooting this Vietnam War epic in the Philippines in the middle of a civil war and monsoon season was bad enough. A typhoon brought down winds and rains so thick the cast couldn’t even see and ruined sets. Marlon Brando showed up overweight, Dennis Hopper demanded cocaine to keep going and with much of the cast and crew truly afraid for their lives. Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and had to drag himself nearly a mile to get help. That’s not to mention the entire payroll being stolen so armed guards had to be about. Throw in how this was a movie that had real helicopters and rifles using real explosives and it’s astounding there were no one-set deaths. This was all chronicled in the acclaimed documentary Hearts of Darkness, showing how it’s amazing this movie was ever finished, let alone became a classic.
Hidden away for years, this 1981 movie finally saw the light of day in 2015…and astounded many with how insane it was. It was produced by Tippi Hedren and one would think a woman who survived Alfred Hitchcock would avoid crazy shoots. Instead, she and Noel Marshall came up with this film of a guy who lives in harmony with live animals including lions and cougars. The film had an 11-year shoot, mostly due to the fact that nearly a hundred members of the cast and crew were attacked by the animals. Jan de Bont had his scalp lifted; Hedren suffered a fractured hip and scalp cuts and broke her leg after being thrown off an elephant; Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith, was mauled and suffered a cut needing 50 stitches; Marshall’s brother had his foot bitten; and Marshall himself was cut so many times he developed gangrene. Assistant director Doron Kaupur got the worst of it, bitten in the throat, jaw and ear nearly torn off. Not surprisingly, this led to a massive turnover with many crew members refusing to return and it took a decade for the movie to be finished. If ever there’s living proof of why humans and animals don’t mix well, this is it.
1. The Conqueror
Howard Hughes was always known as an eccentric man so it makes sense he would back such a bizarre project. In his quest to be taken seriously as a producer, Hughes brought to life this story of Genghis Khan as a Hollywood epic. And who was chosen to play the ancient warlord? John Wayne. For bad movie fanatics, the sight of the Duke in colored skin and a Fu Manchu mustache growing out lines like “You’re beautiful in your wrath” is priceless. Co-starring Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward, the movie was a ridiculous flop but few realized how deadly it was. That’s because to replicate the ancient vistas of Mongol, Hughes had the movie shot in Utah only 20 miles away from a nuclear testing site. Hughes even had much of the dirt moved to Hollywood for reshoots and the cast had little idea of the radiation that went with it.
The numbers speak for themselves: Of the 220 people working on the movie, nearly a hundred of them developed cancer, 45 dying directly of it. That includes Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead and director Dick Powell. While there might have been other factors, the fact so many folks connected to the film passed like this is pretty damning. Hughes was so hard hit by the realization of what he’d done that he bought every copy of the movie and kept it in his vault until after his death. Thus, what could have been just a major turkey turned into a Hollywood tragedy.
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