The film industry is in the business of recreating reality while actually employing it as little as possible. Yet sometimes, especially in the past when film technology was not as effective as it is today, filmmakers were forced to take greater risks to make a scene appear real. It shouldn’t need to be said that with greater risks comes more accidents, more injuries and more deaths. Serious accidents on the set of film may be rare, but they do happen. You might find it interesting to know that a disproportionate amount of these injuries appear to happen while filming war movies. Is this because there are more war films than any other category? Or maybe it’s because war films use so many different types of weaponry? We’re not sure what the answer is. It does, however, seem that the props used on the set of war films are more real and more dangerous than the props on most sets. In many of the examples on this list, real military weaponry and aircraft were simply repurposed for use in film, so maybe that is the reason for the high amount of injuries relative to other genres. Whatever the reasoning behind it is, there is no doubt that military props and machinery are always dangerous, even when you’re just playing war.
Times have changed. As our technology advances, green-screen and CGI war films are becoming pretty much just as safe as all other films. But, as you’ll see by our list, this doesn’t change what’s happened in the past. We’ve gone through and collected the worst of the injuries, many leading to deaths, caused by military props on the set of films. Our goal isn’t to shame military films, just to highlight the inherent risks that these props seemed to carry with them. We will, however, look back together and shake our heads at the numerous tragedies that have occurred on set judgingly, thinking to ourselves, tsk tsk, you’re better than that. If nothing else, this list might highlight and remind people just how dangerous the mechanisms of war are. Here are 15 prop military weapons that caused serious injuries or death.
15. Fokker D-VII Plane – Wings
While filming the World War I film, Wings in 1927, stunt airplane pilot Dick Grace was asked to deliberately crash a Fokker D-VII Plane, the planes used by the Luftstreitkräfte, the German Air Force, in World War I. This modified Fokker D-VII Plane was built to crumple safely when it struck the ground and Grace was comfortable completing the stunt; however, on his attempt at the stunt, the landing gear didn’t crumple as planned and the impact was much harder than anticipated. The huge impact surged Grace forward in his seat, causing his safety straps to snap, and he was sent flying head first into the plane’s instrument panel. In the crash, Grace broke his neck and four vertebrae in his back, but it wasn’t long before he was back in the cockpit flying once again.
14. Simulated Stinger Missile – Charlie Wilson’s War
A special effects assistant was seriously injured on the set of Charlie Wilson’s War when a simulated stinger missile that he was carrying exploded. The missile was planned to be fired from a helicopter and was loaded with a charge, which was obviously more than enough to cause an injury if it went off near a human. It’s unclear how accurate in design the simulated missile was, but the real things are 5.0 ft. long and 2.8 inches in diameter. That’s a big explosive. The film, Charlie Wilson’s War, deals with U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson’s efforts to aid the Afghan mujahideen in the Soviet–Afghan War. Part of his plan was to arm the mujahideen with FIM-92 Stinger missile launchers.
13. B-25 Mitchell Bomber – Catch-22
The North American B-25 Mitchell was a twin-engine bomber used by the allied forces in World War II. When filming Catch-22 (1970), a movie about a B-25 bombardier, second-unit director John Jordan was killed while being transported and filming from one of these planes. While tragic, this story is also a warning against pure stupidity, as Jordan was foolish and refused to wear his safety harness while sitting in plane that was in flight. There’s a reason why people wear these harnesses in these planes. Since he wasn’t buckled in, Jordan was sucked out of the aircraft while he filmed from its open side door as it was in flight. From such heights, he fell to his death. Let that be a lesson for all you daredevils out there.
12. Musket – Gettysburg
Whenever someone films a massive battle scene, they run the risk that someone is going to get injured. It’s not just the blank charges and sharp edges that people have to be worried about, but the melee combat as well. That’s what happened on the set of Gettysburg (1993) when they were filming the battle at Little Round Top. It was in that skirmish that one of the extras, Bradley Egen, was bashed with the butt-end of a musket. Apparently, one of the extras playing a random Confederate soldiers was a go-getter and took his job a little too seriously, smashing the enemy extra across the bridge of the nose and the forehead. Egen ended up with a concussion and was ordered to play a soldier with shell-shock, something that he fit rather nicely after his run in with the non-business end of a musket.
11. Vultee BT-13 – Tora! Tora! Tora!
To prepare for filming Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), several Vultee BT-13 planes, and American World War II-era trainer aircrafts, were fitted to look like Japanese Val dive-bombers, the same planes that were flown in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. During the flight rehearsals, these planes and their stunt pilots were instructed to fly in a basic alignment, but one of the stunt pilots, Guy Thomas Strong, got into trouble and crashed into a sugar-cane field. Sadly, the pilot was killed instantly. Years later, while filming Pearl Harbor, one of these exact same planes crashed, but this time, the pilot escaped with only minor injuries.
10. Civil War Cannons and Firearms – The General
When Buster Keaton set his sights on making The General (1926), he wanted to make a picture different from what he had done in the past. Rather than use the gags that he had become famous for, Keaton wanted the film “to be so authentic it hurts.” Unfortunately, he was true to his word. Keaton brought in loads of Civil War era cannons and firearms to be used in the film. He cast real National Guardsmen in many of the roles and a number of them were injured when their guns malfunctioned, misfired or exploded. One of the men injured by these guns was the assistant director, Harry Barnes, who was shot in the face with a blank charge. Even Keaton himself was injured when he stood too closely to one of the massive cannons and fired it. The blast knocked him unconscious for several minutes. When he woke up, he took a short break and resumed filming later in the afternoon.
9. Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 – The Red Baron
The set of The Red Baron (1971) had a particularly bad string of days while shooting some aerial scenes for the film. Since the film dealt with the legendary WWI pilot, the Red Baron, many of the scenes required stunt pilots and stunt flying. On one fateful day, one of the stunt pilots, Charles Boddington, crashed at the Weston Airfield, a crash that would kill him. The very next day, a plane carrying another stunt pilot, Lynn Garrison, and actor Don Stroud crashed into the Liffey River causing injuries to both occupants. Both planes were Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, fighter planes that were used by the British Air Force in WWI. Following the second accident, the Irish government grounded all 12 planes used in the film shoot while they investigated for negligence.
8. Explosives – G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Fans of beautiful things were shocked when news came down that Sienna Miller had burnt her breasts on the set of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Thankfully, the actress was alright and her goods were as well after such a scary incident. “Luckily it wasn’t my breasts, it was the bit in-between. It got a bit burnt when an explosion got a bit close,” she said. While the injury may not have been life-threatening, anything that risks the sexuality of the gorgeous Sienna Miller is cause for concern. That wasn’t the only injury Miller sustained while working on the film either. In one scene, she slipped on a rubber bullet and fell awkwardly, acquiring a few bruises to complement her burned “bit in-between.” With this kind of danger on set, it’s no wonder that Miller left the film almost regretting signing on in the first place.
7. Nieuport Biplane – The Great Waldo Pepper
Stunt pilot Frank Tallman had the worst job in show business when they were filming The Great Waldo Pepper (1975). Tallman was asked to intentionally crash a Nieuport Biplane, an aircraft that was flown in WWI, for the film, a job that seemed downright crazy. Yet, Tallman did it and successfully, twice. He must have felt invincible. As it turns out, he was invincible, kind of. After crashing two planes on purpose, Tallman was then involved in another crash, this one accidental. While he was flying 400 ft. in the air, the rudder bar broke in his plane, causing him to crash land. It wasn’t a graceful landing, either. The stunt pilot nose-dived into the side of a hill. Luckily, Tallman lived, though he broke his back and needed almost 60 stitches.
6. Bayonet – Fury
During the filming of the World War II film Fury, two stuntmen got a little too into their characters. The two were instructed to fight it out in close quarters without hurting each other, but one of the stuntmen was a little too eager, stabbing the other guy in the shoulder with his bayonet. The two stuntmen were left unnamed in the report and it was treated as just another accident. Whenever a film uses knifes or swords nowadays, they almost always use blunted weapons to ensure that nothing like this happens. Again, possibly because they were repurposing actual WWII weaponry, but this particular bayonet was not blunted and it resulted in an injury. Figure it out, people.
5. Sikorsky S-29-A Aircraft – Hell’s Angels
There were three stunt pilots that died during the filming of Hell’s Angels (1930), a WWI epic focussed on combat pilots. One of the stunt pilots, Al Wilson, was almost included in that number but he escaped death with only minor injuries. When shooting the final scene in the film, Wilson was instructed to put the Sikorsky S-29-A Aircraft (a plane that was meant to portray a German Gotha bomber) that he was flying into a controlled tailspin. The stunt pilot had performed this countless times, but, on this one occasion, it went poorly. When Wilson noticed that he was unable to straighten out the spin, he called back to his mechanic, Phil Jones, to bail him out of the plane. Jones, at that time, was dumping lampblack to make it seem like the plane was smoking and he didn’t hear Wilson’s cries. The pilot evacuated to safety but Jones went down with the plane, dying in the accident. Wilson would die two years later in another stunt.
4. Bomb – Haunted Spooks
Technically it wasn’t a military grade bomb, but that’s neither here nor there. To the actor Harry Lloyd, it makes no difference. During the publicity shoot for the film, Haunted Spooks (1920), Lloyd was passed what he believed to be a prop bomb. To get a good photo, Lloyd lit the bomb’s wick with his cigarette. A few seconds later, the bomb exploded in his hand, blowing off two of his fingers, badly burning his face and leaving him temporarily blind. The event caused quite a stir with the media, but after he recovered, Lloyd refused to even talk about the event. He would wear a prosthetic glove, hiding the injury for the rest of his career.
3. SE5 Biplane – Zeppelin
Four people were killed in a mid-air crash while filming the 1970 WWI film, Zeppelin. The goal was to have a SE5 Biplane fly over the Irish Sea and a helicopter carrying the assistant director, Burch Williams, and cameraman Skeets Kelly would pass by to get some aerial shots of the aircraft passing by. Unfortunately, the directional lines were crossed up and the plane collided with the helicopter, sending both aircrafts into the sea. All four people aboard the two aircrafts were killed in the accident, including both pilots, Jim Liddy and Gilbert Chomat.
2. Curtiss JN-4 Aircraft – The Skywayman
When Ormer Locklear was cast in The Skywayman (1920), there was a lot of talk around the intense aerial stunts that were going to be performed. In the end, the stunts weren’t even that crazy, especially compared to what the star, Locklear, and his flying companion Milton Elliott were used to performing, but the last stunt they performed still ended in disaster. The goal was to film an aerial dive at night with a Curtiss JN-4 Aircraft, a biplane used in WWI. The filmmakers set up arc lights to illuminate the sky until the pilot was ready to dive. At that point, the lights would be shut off and the dive would be made, pulling the plane out before it crashed. Locklear said to the light people, “When you take the lights off, I’ll know where I am and I can come out of it.” It didn’t go as planned. Some of the lights never went off and Locklear was unable to pull out of the dive. The plane crashed into an oilfield, killing both Locklear and Elliot. It’s unclear if he was blinded by the lights or if they put off his timing, but there were definitely some hard feelings around the set after that.
1. Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter – The Twilight Zone
The Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter first saw military action in the Vietnam War. That was exactly the scene that filmmakers of The Twilight Zone movie were trying to set when the helicopter’s rotor was interfered with, causing it to fail and detach. Once the rotor was gone, the aircraft toppled down on top of actors Vic Morrow (Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s father) and two child actors, 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen, killing them all instantly. Between 1980 and 1990, 24 of 37 deaths that occurred on the set of a film were caused by helicopters. After this incident and the resulting court case, many of the safety standards on a film set were changed to better protect everyone involved with making a film.