Monday, May 11, 2009

Death by Cinema

One does not usually count filmmaking as a particularly dangerous business. Yet in some extreme circumstances some actors and performers have met unfortunate ends whilst creating that Hollywood magic. As part of this blog’s re-established commitment to bringing anyone who looks at it pointless information, here is a list of films that, in most cases, really weren’t to die for...

Ben Hur (1925) – 1 dead + several horses. Numerous injuries incurred, many more rumoured.

Rumours persist about a death during the chariot scene in the Charlton Heston film, but it was this early silent effort that resulted in death. The production, the most expensive ever for a silent film, was plagued with disasters. The famous chariot race was shot in Italy in a recreation of the coliseum, but problems with the racing surface and with lighting made filming problematic. Horses were not treated well; any injured were taken out and shot. During one scene, a chariot’s wheels broke apart and the driver was thrown up in the air and landed on a pile of lumber, later dying of his injuries.

Many more deaths have been rumoured. Many local Italian extras for a sea battle scene lied about being able to swim, and to make things more troublesome, the extras were chosen for each battle side based upon whether they were for or against the fascist party in the hope of getting a real fight started. A staged fire also got out of control. Armour clad extras were forced to leap into the sea from a flaming triremes warship for escape the flames. Three men were unaccounted for after the incident, though they subsequently turned up several days later alive and well.

Trader Horn (1931) – 2 dead + many animal deaths. Several made seriously ill.

Important as the first film ever non-documentary film shot in Africa, the filmmakers were entirely unprepared for the realities of filming there. Numerous people, including the director, caught malaria. Lead actress Edwina Booth would find herself plagued by the disease for 6 years, effectively destroying her career. Two of the crew were even less lucky. An African crewmember fell into a river and was eaten by a crocodile, while another was trampled by a stampede of rhinos. This scene was sensitively kept in the film.

A second crew was sent to Mexico, where animal rights laws were lax, to stage several animal attack scenes. Lions were starved and then set upon hyenas, monkeys and deer.

The Twilight Zone (1983) – 3 dead.

Perhaps the most famous film accident next to Brandon Lee’s passing during the making of The Crow. Actor Vic Morrow and two Chinese child actors, both under ten and illegally hired, were killed when a low flying helicopter spun out of control after a pyrotechnic explosion . Morrow and one of the children were decapitated and the other child was crushed by the helicopter. As a result, helicopter stunts were discouraged in Hollywood for many years and child labour laws were revised. Director John Landis and several of the crew were charged with involuntary manslaughter, but were later acquitted.

Zeppelin (1971) – 4/5 dead.

This fairly unremarkable war drama featured Micheal York as a soldier who lives in England but was born in Germany. His unique background gives him the opportunity to do a bit of double-agenty style stuff and to effectively win Britain WW1. The film contains extensive effects and action shooting, and during one ill-fated sequence, a replica SE-5 biplane actually crashed into an Alouette helicopter killing four or five people, depending on which source you read.

The Conqueror (1956) – hard to determine.

Strictly speaking no one actually died during the filming of The Conqueror, but the film would have a lasting and terrible effect on many of those involved, and not just because of John Wayne’s turn as Genghis Khan. The movie was shot a hundred and thirty miles downwind from a nuclear testing site (John Wayne was pictured with a Geiger counter during filming) but little was known about the links between radiation and cancer back then.

Director Dick Powell died within the first two years of filming. Susan Haywood, John Wayne and Agnes Moorehead would all die during the 70s. Cast member John Hoyt died from lung cancer in the 1990s. Actor Pedro Armendariz, on learning he had terminal kidney cancer, shot himself in the head. By 1980, 91 members of the crew had developed cancer, and half of those had already died from it. Though many of the crew were smokers, it’s estimated that in a group this size only about 30 would have developed a cancer.

Sand from the site was later taken back to the studio for re-shoots. Numerous extras, family members and others visited the site during filming, making the real number of people effected hard to determine.