The film and television industry is a magical land of make believe. We see places and things on screen that look real but they almost always are not. Still, the props that are used on set to make things appear real are often real, or at least still quite dangerous. The bigger the production, the better chance that the props on set are fully functional items. As technology has advanced, props have become more realistic and, often, more dangerous. This is our fault. As viewers, our eyes have become expert crap detectors. We can spot fakes in an instant, even if we’ve never even seen the real thing up close. This has made the prop creators and set designers weary, working tirelessly to create items that look and feel as real as possible. You would think it would be the opposite, that the more advanced our technology gets the more realistic the fakes get and the safer a set becomes. This is true in some spaces, but almost anything can be dangerous. Props that make explosions or blasts still require pyrotechnics, and controlled or not, pyrotechnics are dangerous. Likewise, realistic set pieces need to be hard and heavy to pass the eye test. Gone are the days of cardboard and Styrofoam pieces passing for cinderblocks and metal. Heavy and hard usually equates to some form of danger.
Over the years, props have malfunctioned on film and TV sets countless times. Often we never hear about these happenings, but when someone gets hurt, maimed or killed, it becomes major news. We’ve gone through and collected some of the biggest prop mishaps in history. Every one of these events made the news, but maybe you were too busy or not born soon enough to hear about it. Maybe you were too caught up in the latest [enter brainless celebrity here] drama to know that a poor actor was cut in half by a machete on set. Well, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to catch you up. Here are 15 times that props malfunctioned and caused horrible injuries.
15. The Lord of the Rings – Prop Grappling Hook
During the battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the Uruk-hai launch grappling hooks over the battlements to haul up their massive ladders. In one of the scenes, one of these massive grappling hooks hits one of the soldiers up top. It looked great in the final edit. However, the first time they tried this, the stunt and the prop went way wrong. The massive grappling hook latched onto one of the extra’s legs and pulled him toward the wall, pinning his leg and breaking it. This accident was very serious, as Peter Jackson actually described it as the worst accident they had during any of the three films.
14. The General – Prop Cannons
Back in 1926, when The General was being filmed, film safety wasn’t what it is today. Plenty of people would get injured on set, especially on epics like Buster Keaton’s The General. Still, you don’t expect to see serious injuries and, on that particular film, several very serious injuries were just narrowly avoided. One was to Keaton himself, as he fired a prop cannon when he was too close to it and was knocked unconscious. The crazed actor woke up a few minutes later completely unfazed. He would resume shooting later that same afternoon. A worse injury happened to assistant director Harry Barnes, who was shot in the face with a blank charge. Luckily, he was far enough away that the charge didn’t do serious damage.
13. Young Ones – Exploding Wall Prop
Nicholas Hoult is gradually becoming one of Hollywood’s more recognizable young actors, but, as he tells it, he was nearly killed on the set of Young Ones. He said that there were a few issues on set, including a motorbike that he was required to ride that didn’t have rear brakes and the rear axle wasn’t even bolted on properly. The worst thing that happened to him occurred when he was performing a stunt for the film, which required him to run by a wall that would explode leading the viewer to think that bullets had blown off the corner of the wall as Hoult ran by. The man who triggered the exploding wall would wait until Hoult passed and then blow it up. It seems, however, that the guy had an itchy trigger finger and pressed it too soon, causing the wall to explode in Hoult’s face. The actor got away with some minor injuries, but they thought it was much worse.
12. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – Prop Car
Only a few months removed from a horrible injury to stuntwoman Olivia Jackson on the set of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, another terrible accident took the life of cameraman Ricardo Cornelius. On the day of the accident, Cornelius and some others had to position a prop Hummer in various ways depending on the shot that was needed. Cornelius was positioning the prop Hummer when it slipped off the platform and pinned him. The truck was moved and Cornelius was rushed to hospital and put on life support, but he died shortly after. Sadly, the entire film was plagued with injuries from the get-go with this one topping them all.
11. Cardinal (TV Series) – Prop Gun
In the most recent of injuries on this list, actor Brendan Fletcher suffered a serious throat injury when a prop firearm that had not been emptied of blanks was discharged close to the actor’s face. Fletcher sustained serious burns and lacerations to his throat and had to be hospitalized after the incident. It’s unclear who or how the gun discharged or why it wasn’t emptied properly, but the actor has since recovered and shooting continued. Without any other evidence, we’ll blame the star, Billy Campbell, for no other reason than jealously that Fletcher got to be in The Revenant.
10. Spartacus – Prop Cauldron
Watch the scene in Spartacus, which has Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) push Charles McGraw’s face into soup closely. Hell, Google “Spartacus Soup” if you’ve not seen it yet. Douglas pushes McGraw’s face into the pot of soup and holds him under. Then, when McGraw comes up for air, he slips and smashes his face into the side of the pot. Looks really bad, doesn’t it? Well, McGraw broke his jaw in that particular instant and finished the scene. It’s made out to look like McGraw is some sort of hero for holding out to finish the scene, but it doesn’t look like Douglas gave him a chance to do anything else. Any struggling just looked like he was acting really, really well.
9. Enter the Dragon – Prop Bottle
In Enter the Dragon, there’s a scene in which Bob Wall, an actor and famed martial artist, was to attack Bruce Lee with a broken bottle. They used real glass bottles, not breakaway glass, because both Lee and the director Robert Clouse insisted everything be as real as possible. The actors had done the scene perfectly about six times. According to Wall, Lee’s instructions were simple. He asked that Wall thrust the broken bottle at his right pectoral as fast as possible. As Wall was coming at him with the bottle, Lee was to kick his arm away between the wrist and the elbow. However, on the seventh attempt, it went wrong. Either Wall’s bottle thrust was off line or Lee’s kick was above the elbow. Either way, when Lee kicked, the bottle didn’t move far enough away and Lee badly cut his hand. A rumor started afterward that Lee wanted to kill Wall for the incident, but Wall said that was all manufactured by Clouse.
8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Prop Hydraulic Door
As we mentioned in the introduction, greater technology doesn’t always equate to safer props. That’s exactly why someone got hurt on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and, unfortunately for Harrison Ford/Han Solo, he was the someone who found this out the hard way. Of the accident, Ford said, “Now we had lots of money and technology and so they built a f***ing great hydraulic door which closed at light speed and somebody said, ‘Ooh I wonder what this is?’” While shooting, Ford felt the wrath of this warp-speed door as he was passing underneath it. “The door came down and hit me on my left hip because I was turned to my right,” he said. “And then it flung my left leg up and it dislocated my ankle and as it drove me down to the floor, my legs slapped on the ramp up to the Millennium Falcon and broke both bones in my left leg.” That’s a pretty gross description right there, Harrison.
7. Haunted Spooks – Prop Bomb
In 1919, while making the film Haunted Spooks, actor Harold Lloyd was involved in a very strange accident. Lloyd was handed a prop bomb, or at least handed what he thought was a prop bomb. He took his cigarette out of his mouth and lit the fuse. Unbelievably, this was a real bomb and it blew up in his hand, blowing off his thumb and pinky finger. His face was also badly burned in the accident and shooting was halted indefinitely. Amazingly, Lloyd went through the rest of his entire career without ever mentioning the hand, refusing to speak about the incident so that people would be forced to focus on his films. He would wear a prosthetic glove which made it seem like he had five fingers thereon out.
6. Cyborg – Prop Knife
There’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of this film, but this little tidbit of trivia involves the great Jean-Claude Van Damme. While filming one of the many fight scenes in Cyborg, Van Damme accidentally struck Jackson “Rock” Pinckney (one of the film’s pirates) in the eye with a prop knife. Even though the blade was dulled, it was still a hard and dangerous weapon. Pinckney would lose vision in his eye from the incident. He would also sue Van Damme and was awarded over $485,000. Van Damme was deemed to constantly engage in excessive contact on set, and for that, his actions were seen as dangerous and punishable.
5. Charlie Wilson’s War – Prop Missile
Whereas most of the events on this list involve actors, sometimes it’s the crew members who are seriously injured when props malfunction. On the set of Charlie Wilson’s War, a special effects assistant found himself in critical condition after a prop missile he was handling ended up exploding. Details on the events are fuzzy at best, but we know that the missile was expected to be shot out of a helicopter and the SFX team was preparing it when it went off. The fact that the man carrying the missile lived, proves that it wasn’t an actual missile, but even a prop with powder and a blank charge can be extremely dangerous in close quarters.
4. The Twilight Zone – Helicopter
You can’t call a real Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter a prop! No, technically we can’t, but, since the real helicopter was interfered with by a mortar effect, which is a prop, we are including it. You’ve probably heard of this terrible story, but we’re telling it again. Vic Morrow, long time actor and Jennifer Jason Leigh‘s father, was shooting the film, The Twilight Zone, when a helicopter came down and killed him and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, as well. The helicopter was positioned over top of a mortar effect, a device that makes fake explosions, when it went off. The debris from the mortar effect caused the rotor of the helicopter fail and detach, which, in turn, caused the whole aircraft to come down on top of the three victims. All three were killed instantly, making this one of the most tragic accidents on a film in history.
3. The Crow – Prop Gun
Now everyone’s heard of this one. Brandon Lee, while filming The Crow, was shot and killed when a prop gun malfunctioned. In a previous scene, real bullets were loaded into the gun for a close-up shot. Sometime later, one of the bullets got lodged into the chamber. Then, after a blank was inserted into the gun for a scene in which Lee was to be shot at, the blank, which carries a real powder charge, projected the lodged bullet from the gun and into Lee’s stomach when it was activated. Lee was rushed to hospital where he underwent unsuccessful surgery, dying sometime later. The scene in which he was shot was altered out of respect for Lee and his family.
2. Cover Up – Prop Gun
Eight years before Brandon Lee was killed by a prop gun, there was another horrible accident that occurred on the set of the television show, Cover Up. The main star, actor Jon-Erik Hexum, had been filming a scene that required a real gun filled with blanks. After there was a delay in filming, Hexum, bored and impatient, pretended to play Russian Roulette with the gun, unloading it of all but one of the blanks. He then spun the cylinder, put the gun to his temple and fired. What Hexum thought was a harmless act would eventually kill him. The force of the charge in the gun forced the plastic wadding into Hexum’s temple. This wadding then broke a piece of his skull off and into his brain. This little chunk of skull cause severe hemorrhaging in Hexum’s brain. Six days later, the actor was pronounced brain dead and his organs were transplanted.
1. They Died with Their Boots On – Prop Sword
There are films that are renowned for having tragedy on set, like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter for instance, and then there is the 1941 film They Died with Their Boots On, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. While making that film, three members of the cast and crew died in three different situations. One stuntman had a heart attack, which could have happened anywhere but is still no fun. The other two, however, were a direct result of the film. One actor fell from his horse and broke his neck. Another actor, Jack Budlong, demanded that he use a real sword instead of a rubber one for his scenes. When a staged explosion sent him flying off his horse, Budlong threw his sword, thinking it was too dangerous to fall with it. Unfortunately, the thrown sword landed hilt down and blade up, and Budlong landed on it, impaling himself. That’s bad luck and even worse aim.
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