Health and safety is important in every profession, and movie-making is no different. From stunt people performing dangerous feats to actors shooting in hazardous locations, there are a lot of factors that filmmakers have to take into consideration. Most of the time, production teams ensure that their sets are as risk-free as possible. That being said, however, there remain hair-raising incidents where movie crews threw caution to the wind in pursuit of art. And these 20 pictures are prime examples of why safety should always come first.
20. Apocalypse Now (1979)
As the old adage goes, war is hell. But the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now made most conflicts seem like a walk in the park. Filmed in the Philippines during a rebel uprising, the movie was often shot mere hours away from real combat zones. To make matters worse, the country’s extreme weather laid waste to the production. Following a devastating typhoon, for example, whole sets had to be reconstructed.
Perhaps the biggest sufferer of the shoot, however, was lead actor Martin Sheen. Battling a drink problem at the time, the star fully immersed himself in the madness of the picture. To wit, Sheen’s intense opening scene – which he filmed blind drunk – saw him slice his hand on a broken mirror. Near the end of the production, Sheen was in such distress that he experienced a near-fatal heart attack. Certainly, it’s a minor miracle that the actor survived.
19. Titanic (1997)
With a global gross of just over $2 billion, Titanic remains one of cinema’s most financially successful projects. And perhaps fittingly for a film about an infamous maritime disaster, it took a whole boatful of blood, sweat and tears to get there. For instance, director James Cameron was forced to use CGI for the titular ship’s sinking after several stunt people were wounded attempting replicate the incident for real. Star Kate Winslet, meanwhile, suffered pneumonia after spending hours in a water tank without a wetsuit.
Nevertheless, the 1997 drama’s most hazardous moment happened while the cameras weren’t even rolling. During the last night of shooting, cast and crew took a break from filming to enjoy a clam chowder dinner. Little did they know, however, that someone had spiked the meal with the hallucinogen P.C.P. – a prank that hospitalized the film’s 150-strong team. “Some people [were] freaking out, some people [were] conga dancing,” actor Bill Paxton told Larry King in 2015.
18. Super Size Me (2004)
Inspired by an alarming growth in obesity amongst American citizens, documentarian Morgan Spurlock decided to conduct a risky experiment for his breakthrough feature Super Size Me. Over the course of one month in 2003, the filmmaker vowed to only eat meals from fast food chain McDonald’s. Documenting his progress throughout those weeks, Spurlock aimed to highlight the lack of healthy choices offered by the company. But he did so at a cost to his physical and mental welfare.
Each day that Spurlock followed this diet, in fact, the filmmaker consumed double his suggested daily calorie intake. As a result, he developed an abnormal heart rhythm as well as 24 pounds of extra weight, an increased cholesterol count and depressive episodes. Fortunately, though, the director’s suffering wasn’t in vain. Following the documentary’s 2004 release, McDonald’s decided to abandon serving extra-large Super Size portions, and food lovers worldwide were encouraged to embrace healthier lifestyles.
17. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Since its 1971 release, A Clockwork Orange has gained a reputation as one of cinema’s most dangerous films. Indeed, director Stanley Kubrick initially took this tale of juvenile delinquency off U.K. screens after it allegedly inspired a spate of copycat attacks in the country. But for lead actor Malcolm McDowell – who played the film’s antihero Alex DeLarge – the production was hazardous for different reasons. To be precise, the star was lucky to escape filming in one piece.
After filming one scene, for example, McDowell suffered cracked ribs, while another sequence saw him repeatedly spat on by actor Steven Berkoff. Moreover, the film’s infamous therapy segment – in which DeLarge has his eyes held open with clamps – left the actor with painfully damaged corneas. Not that the perfectionist Kubrick cared for his star’s plight, however. “Stanley was mainly concerned about when he would be able to get the next shot,” McDowell told The Guardian in 2019.
16. The African Queen (1951)
While it’s not unusual for modern Hollywood blockbusters to utilize location shooting, most early movie productions rarely left the backlot. In this regard, 1951’s The African Queen was something of a pioneer. Rather than recreate Sub-Saharan Africa on a soundstage, director John Huston flew his cast and crew out to the continent. However, shooting far from home turned out to have its downside. And after drinking local water supplies, much of the production’s staff came down with dysentery.
Actress Katharine Hepburn was one of those most badly affected. So severe was her illness, in fact, that she often performed with a bucket off-camera just in case she had to vomit during a scene. Nonetheless, her director and co-star Humphrey Bogart managed to escape unharmed. Indeed, the two dodged sickness by sticking to a rigid diet of whiskey instead of water. “Whenever a fly bit me or Huston, it dropped dead,” Bogart would later joke.
15. The General (1926)
When it comes to slapstick comedy, there are few names as venerated as Buster Keaton. One of cinema’s earliest stars, the actor made his name performing bold white-knuckle stunts that left his audiences awestruck. Perhaps his most famous film, 1926’s The General saw the entertainer push his craft to the limit. Cast as a locomotive driver, Keaton performed stunts while the train was in motion. Indeed, without the aid of special effects, every move was accomplished in camera.
Unsurprisingly, though, the actor’s bravery didn’t protect him from injury altogether. At one point, the star lost consciousness after being exposed to cannon fire during a scene. And Keaton wasn’t the only one on-set to suffer an accident: a crew member was wounded by a rifle shot and another was run over by a train. Moreover, the film’s titular coal-burning locomotive was a firefighter’s nightmare, and its engine repeatedly caused damage to nearby woodland and farms.
14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Has there ever been a happier film made than The Wizard of Oz? From the colorful characters to the heartwarmingly chipper music, the movie has been essential childhood viewing for countless generations. And yet for those involved in the 1939 fantasy, there was little joy to be had throughout production. Due in part to the era’s lax safety laws, in fact, it was absolute torture in every sense of the word.
For example, actress Margaret Hamilton was caked in oily makeup as part of her Wicked Witch of the West costume. While it looked good on-screen, however, the cosmetic was extremely flammable, leading the star to receive burns from a malfunctioning pyrotechnic. In a similar vein, original Tin Man Buddy Ebsen had a severe reaction to his silvery aluminum-based based body paint. It was so severe, in fact, that exposure to the substance left him temporarily in an iron lung.
13. Street Fighter (1994)
With an abysmal 11 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Street Fighter is a film few people want to remember. Which is a shame, considering the lengths this 1994 video-game adaptation’s makers went to complete it. While shooting in Thailand, rumors of a coup led the country’s government to shut down roads in the production area. As a result, crew members were forced to access the sets by boat.
Moreover, M. Bison actor Raul Julia’s poor health exacerbated these problems. Due to the star’s battle with cancer, the film’s shooting schedule was dramatically rearranged. Consequently, fight scenes – which the rest of the cast hadn’t yet received adequate training for – were pushed to the start of production. As actor Bryon Mann recalled to The Guardian in 2018, one scene had him perform with very real blades. “I could have injured myself and others,” the star admitted.
12. Jackass: The Movie (2002)
Most filmmakers tend to avoid accidents at all costs. But for the cast of Jackass: The Movie, injury was all part of the game. Like its TV counterpart, the 2002 big-screen adaption depicted Johnny Knoxville’s lovable band of doofuses enacting hilarious yet dangerous stunts. Throughout its 90-minute runtime, the film saw the gang electrocute themselves, compete in demolition derbies and tightrope-walk over alligator-infested waters – all in the name of entertainment.
Naturally, carrying out such risky feats came at a cost. And Knoxville, in particular, came close to death on several occasions during the course of filming. In one hair-raising moment, a knockout blow from boxer Butterbean required the actor to receive stitches. Elsewhere, the prankster nearly broke his neck after flipping a golf cart in spectacular fashion. “I still can’t believe Knoxville made it out alive,” co-star Dave England told Rolling Stone in 2015. “The best footage ever.”
11. Come and See (1985)
Described by novelist J.G. Ballard as “the greatest anti-war film ever made,” watching Come and See is a harrowing experience. Centering upon German atrocities committed in the U.S.S.R. during World War Two, the film depicted the brutal realities of warfare. Indeed, much of the 1985 movie’s power stemmed from director Elim Klimov’s unflinching commitment to realism. And to that end, the filmmaker clearly had no qualms about putting his crew in harm’s way.
Instead of loading his cast’s rifles with blanks, for instance, Klimov often insisted on live ammunition being fired. This led to instances where actors – such as then 14-year-old lead Aleksey Kravchenko – had bullets flying mere inches over their heads. Ultimately, Klimov’s avoidance of fakery took a toll on his cast. So shaken was Kravchenko following Come and See’s completion that the actor’s hair had even turned grey.
10. Shark! (1969)
Before Steven Spielberg’s seminal horror Jaws, 1969’s Shark! had already explored the terrors of the sea’s most feared predator. Starring a young Burt Reynolds, the flick – originally to be called Caine after the film’s lead character – revolved around underwater explorers. Nevertheless, the movie has since become most widely known for a terrible accident on set that saw stuntman Jose Marco mauled to death by a great white. And 50 years on, the cause of the incident is still debated.
By varying accounts, the attacker was either a wild shark that swam into the set or a tame one that hadn’t been adequately sedated. What is known, however, is that producers used Marco’s death to drum up publicity for the film. In a case of incredibly morbid marketing, the studio renamed the film after the stuntman’s killer and allowed pictures of the accident to appear in Life magazine. In turn, this prompted director Samuel Fuller to depart the production in disgust.
9. The Expendables 2 (2012)
Although they may make death-defying feats look easy on screen, stunt people still regularly run the risk of dying. And sadly, not all trained professionals come out of a movie shoot alive. While filming action sequel The Expendables 2 in 2011, for example, stand-ins Ken Lieu and Nuo Sun were caught in an explosion. Despite serious injuries, Sun lived to see another day. However, Lieu wasn’t so lucky and died.
Following the accident, both Lieu’s family and Sun sued the 2012 hit’s production company over alleged negligence. But this didn’t stop further accidents from happening on the franchise’s film sets. Two years after Lieu’s tragic death, in fact, actor Jason Statham almost drowned while shooting The Expendables 3 after a truck he was driving plunged off a cliff. It was only the star’s diving skills that saved him from death.
8. Silence (2016)
Throughout his long career, Martin Scorsese has created controversy with his depictions of violence, masculinity and the Mafia. Nonetheless, all this criticism pales in comparison to the trouble he’s experienced for covering another taboo topic: religion. His portrayal of Jesus in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, resulted in radicals bombing a Parisian cinema. Meanwhile, the filmmaker’s 2016 work Silence – which concerned missionaries in 17th-century Japan – was plagued by tragedy before filming even began.
In early 2015, prior to the shoot commencing, producers became concerned about the safety of a building located on the film’s set in Taiwan. Unfortunately, their fears proved correct as the structure subsided while construction workers were inside making repairs. During the accident, two contractors were injured and another one lost their life. “Everyone is in shock and sorrow and expresses their deepest concern and sympathies to the families of the individual who died and those were injured,” Scorsese later said via a statement, according to Deadline.
7. Noah’s Ark (1928)
Prior to the era of CGI, filmmakers had to rely on practical effects if they wanted to show something spectacular. This meant that if a director wanted a great flood – as auteur Michael Curtiz did to for 1928’s Noah’s Ark – then their only choice was to create a flood in real life. Safety regulations being what they were in the 1920s, though, protection from danger wasn’t always guaranteed. So when Curtiz staged the dangerous event, it led to tragic results.
According to Hollywood lore, the 600,000 gallons of water used in the production wreaked havoc on cast and crew. Following the set piece, it was reported than more than 30 ambulances were needed to care for those injured by the stunt. Far worse, three extras are said to have lost their lives while another had to have their leg surgically removed. The cost of life was so great, in fact, that stricter safety guidelines for use in motion pictures were brought in shortly afterwards.
6. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who takes his craft very, very seriously. From hypnotizing his cast for 1976’s Heart of Glass to eating his own shoe, there is nothing the German director won’t do for art. Nonetheless, 1982’s Fitzcarraldo remains his most remarkable achievement in demented ambition. Revolving around an opera lover’s quest down the River Amazon, the movie was shot on location in South America. And naturally, such an exacting production faced a whole host of challenges.
During filming, cast and crew alike fell victim to various diseases endemic in the jungle. Original actor Jason Robards, for example, departed midway through production due to illness, while some extras died from illness. In addition, several crew members were attacked by native tribespeople, another became paralyzed in an airplane crash and one lost their leg to a snake bite.
5. Roar (1981)
Few films can claim to have harmed 70 crew members. But Roar’s casualty list seems small considering that 150 wild and ferocious big cats were involved in the production. Among the most notable injuries inflicted on the cast and crew, cinematographer Jan de Bont needed in excess of 120 stitches, while director Noel Marshall developed gangrene. Fearing for her life, actress Melanie Griffith walked off set but was then wounded by a lion upon her return.
Things weren’t hazardous for just those involved in the shoot, however. While filming took place in star Tippi Hedren’s California retreat, some animals escaped, which led to three lions being killed by panicked police officers. Due to the 1981 film’s troubled production, Roar took 11 years to complete. By that time, Hollywood studios no longer wanted the feature, and it wouldn’t be seen in American cinemas until 2015.
4. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
When it comes to on-set accidents, few are as notorious as the one that befell production of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982. During filming of a segment set in the Vietnam War, a helicopter lost control and fell on actors Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen killing them instantly. Soon afterwards, it transpired that Le and Chen – who were both under ten years old – had been hired illegally, which made the incident even more appalling.
In the wake of the tragedy, five members of the production – including segment director John Landis – were charged with manslaughter. After a long trial, the accused were acquitted, and the victims’ families settled out of court. Moreover, the accident led to much stricter safety and child labor laws on film sets, which caused a near-70 percent drop in Hollywood film injuries. As the film’s co-director Steven Spielberg said afterwards according to Joseph McBride’s 2010 biography, “No movie is worth dying for.”
3. The Conqueror (1956)
Unlike most of the films on this list, The Conqueror finished production without a hitch. It was only years after filming wrapped on this Genghis Khan biopic that people realized something had gone terribly wrong. Following The Conqueror‘s 1956 release, many of the cast and crew involved were diagnosed with cancer of some kind. In total, more than 90 people developed the illness with it proving terminal for over half of them – including stars John Wayne and Susan Hayward as well as director Dick Powell.
While it can be argued that these cases of cancer were coincidental, another explanation nevertheless seems possible. During the 1950s, the U.S. military tested nuclear bombs around 100 miles from the film’s shooting location. Indeed, examinations of the area discovered above average levels of radioactive fallout that could have contributed to the illnesses suffered by the cast and crew. Whatever the explanation, producer Howard Hughes would later withdraw the film from release, with some attributing his decision to a guilty conscience.
2. The Viking (1931)
Although 1931’s The Viking is largely forgotten by modern cinema lovers, the early sound film remains Hollywood’s most fatal production. Set in Northern Canada, the movie used footage that explorer Varick Frissell shot while sailing around the Newfoundland coast. It was during one such expedition within the Labrador Sea that an explosion occurred inside Frissell’s vessel the SS Viking. In all, 27 crew members – including Frissell himself – died in the accident.
Despite the fact that some witnesses onboard managed to survive, no definitive explanation for the explosion has ever been found. Moreover, Frissell’s remains were never discovered in the wreckage of the boat. Wishing to take advantage of the incident, however, the movie’s financiers decided to name their film after the ill-fated ship. In fact, they even billed the production as “the picture that cost the lives of the producers, Varick Frissell and 25 members of the crew.”
1. The Sword of Tipu Sultan (1990)
With all the hazards a film set has to offer, safety should be of paramount importance to any production team. Certainly, the making of 1990’s The Sword of Tipu Sultan shows how easily fatal accidents can happen. During filming of the Bollywood drama in 1989, a fire broke out in the studio backlot causing loss of life never seen before or since. Over the course of the blaze, 62 crewmembers passed away making the fire cinema’s worst on-set accident.
Since then, those involved in the accident have given their own account of how the inferno was allowed to start. Star and director Sanjay Khan – who required in excess of 70 operations following the incident – reported a lack of fireproofing and temperatures inside the set topping 120° F. Over time, filmmaking and fire safety professionals alike have called for better regulations in Bollywood productions. But for now, The Sword of Tipu Sultan remains a warning to filmmakers of what could go wrong.