The History of Accidents in the Film Industry

Last week we reported on a couple of recent accidents in the film industry, notably that Hollywood star Tom Cruise broke an ankle on the set of the latest Mission: Impossible 6 and a more serious incident in which a motor bike stunt rider was killed during the filming of  Walking Dead.  Today we’re going to take a closer look at the long history of accidents within the film and television industry.  Stunt work accounts for more than half of all film-related injuries, with an average of five deaths for every 2,000 injuries. 

For the first recorded deaths while filming we need to go way back in time to the second decade of last century when in 1914 a horrific accident took place during the filming of Across the Border.  On location in Canon City, Colorado, cast member Grace McHugh was filming a scene in which her character had to cross the Arkansas River in a boat.   The boat capsized and a heroic camera operator, Owen Carter promptly jumped into the river to rescue her.  Carter managed to drag Grace onto a sandbar which was actually quicksand.  Members of the crew watched helplessly as both were dragged under to their deaths.

In 192-, Harold Lloyd, the guy famous for hanging from the hands of a clock face high above the street in Safety Last, had an explosive experience.  On the set of Haunted Spooks he picked up what he thought was a prop bomb before realising too late that it was real.  The bomb detonated, blowing off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand leaving him needing to use a prosthetic glove for future film roles.  Ben Hur, filmed in 1925 was responsible for the death of a stuntman when a chariot wheel broke during the legendary chariot race scene. 

Moving on to the 1930s, three pilots were killed during the filming of Hell’s Angels (1930), while a stuntman fell off his horse onto a broken sword during the making of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936).  Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz was severely burned during the scene that called for her to vanish in a burst of flame and smoke in 1939 and the Tin Man suffered a collapsed lung leading to lifelong respiratory issues as a result of a severe reaction to his silver make up.

Citizen Kane (1941) saw Orson Welles tripping down stairs and chipping his anklebone which three horsemen perished during the cavalry charge featured in They Died with Their Boots On in the same year. 

Moving on to the 1950s, Tyrone Power died of a heart attack while filming a fencing scene in Solomon and Sheba (1959) but the decade was relatively safe compared with the 1960s during which David Niven almost drowned while filming The Guns of Navarone (1961), a stuntman lost a leg on the setoff How the West was Won (1962) and a stuntman was mauled to death by a (supposedly sedated) shark during the filming of Shark (1969).  The Battle of Britain (1969) saw the death of a Spanish air force pilot in a crash at Seville, another pilot crashed and was killed filming The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and a parachutist drowned during aerial filming of The War Lover (1962).

Next week we’ll take a look at some of the more recent accidents – these have increased as the film industry has grown.