From “The Crow” to “Rust”, a history of Hollywood’s on-set tragedies

Following the recent tragic on-set accident involving Alec Baldwin, LILA Gazette takes a look back on some of the worst movie accidents in Hollywood history.

By Jasper Harvey/11th grade

AA Film Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Considering the amount of gun violence and tragedies that appear on screen in Hollywood films, there are bound to be a few accidents of it spilling over onto the set. However, what is astonishing is the carelessness and lack of regulations which causes these freak accidents to take place, when they could be easily avoidable. Some of the most famous disasters in filmmaking history which we will be looking back on today were the direct result of crew negligence and a lack of proper regulations in place to ensure the safety of all crew members. In Alec Baldwin and Halyna Hutchins’ case, is it unacceptable that a job as important as making sure a prop gun does not contain real bullets could be neglected by the crew. 

On October 21st, 2021, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins (pictured on the right) on the set of his upcoming film “Rust”. Baldwin believed that he had been handed a gun loaded with blanks, a belief he felt had been confirmed by the assistant director yelling “Cold gun!” (cold gun being a term used in the industry meaning the gun is unloaded or harmless). The film’s director Joel Souza was also injured and hospitalized in the incident. Currently under police investigation because of the incident, Baldwin has made it clear that he is working with them on the matter and has been in contact with Hutchins’ family, whom he said was one of his close friends. 

  Arguably the most famous film set accident that comes to mind is the untimely death of Brandon Lee. Brandon was the son of Hollywood legend, celebrated stunt actor and martial artist Bruce Lee. He died in a similar manner to Halyna Hutchins, via a prop gun mishap on the set of “The Crow” in 1993. Brandon died in an untimely fashion at 28 just like his father, who himself passed away at 32 of a brain embolism. With only 8 days left of filming, Brandon was killed by a .44 bullet that had become jammed in the prop gun when filming his character Eric Draven’s climactic death scene. The man who fired the gun, Michael Massee, was under the impression that it solely contained blanks, just like Baldwin.

Increase in concern

In the years following Brandon’s untimely death, there was an increase in concern for safety on set, according to weapons expert Bill Davis. “I had a lot of work for five or six years after Brandon’s death, and then these directors lulled themselves into a false sense of security”, said Davis to the Washington Post. Brandon’s death essentially resulted in a momentary increase in gun safety awareness on set, but this awareness shortly died out when the shock of his death began to fade. Eventually, Hollywood forgot about the importance of gun safety and no permanent changes were made to the way guns are used on set.     

Bettmann Archives via New York Post

Although these two tragedies may give a different impression, prop weapons are not the primary cause of accidents on set. The main perpetrator of life threatening disasters on set is by far helicopter accidents. Since the 1980s, there have been 31 fatalities as a result of helicopters on film and television sets. Undoubtedly the worst of these helicopter accidents has to be the Twilight Zone accident of 1982. John Landis, the director of renowned films such as “The Blues Brothers”, “An American Werewolf in London”, and “Trading Places” was working on “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” when a helicopter flying too low crashed on top of three actors. The actors killed were 53 year old Vic Morrow, 7 year old Renee Chen and 6 year old Myca Dinh Le. According to Morrow’s good friend and co-star Dick Peabody, his last words to him had been about his anxiety over the stunt: “I’ve got to be crazy to do this shot. I should’ve asked for a double” (New York Post). Morrow died holding the two children in his arms.

Rightfully so, there was a public outrage following the disaster with people demanding for accountability and change. John Landis, special effects coordinator John Stewart, and three other people who had played a role in the accident were charged with involuntary manslaughter, although they were found innocent 10 months later. The families of the child actors who were killed received $200 million dollars in settlements from Warner Bros, Burbank Studios, and various other parties involved. Since this accident, helicopters have been used much less frequently in Hollywood, and the number of accidents has drastically decreased.

Online petition

Only five fatalities because of helicopter accidents have occured since the 80s (Deadline), so the Twilight Zone disaster has definitely led to a change in the way helicopters are used in Hollywood. The immediate response to public demands makes one wonder why the same thing did not occur following gun accidents. Maybe Hollywood’s obsession with guns is a reflection of America’s attitude towards guns as a whole. 

What’s next when it comes to dealing with accidents in Hollywood? A petition dubbed “Halyna’s law” calling for the banning of real fire arms on film sets has received over 115,000 signatures. This petition has been promoted by various prominent figures in Hollywood like “Booksmart” director Olivia Wilde, who raised awareness about the issue on her twitter. We here at the Lila Gazette strongly encourage any readers to sign the petition in an attempt to put an end to needless avoidable deaths as a result of firearms on set. Whether or not Hollywood will act on this initiative is uncertain. There was an obvious need for change following the tragic death of Brandon Lee, and yet no long term changes were made in regards to firearms on set.

After a while, people forgot about what happened and moved on without any real differences being made. Hollywood needs to take accountability for its role in the on-set deaths of many actors and listen to the calls for change. If they do so, this tragedy could pave the way for a brighter future and lead to a better working environment on set for all crew members.

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