Jackie Chan, patron saint of doing anything for a movie, once said to a less-than-ambitious director that “No one will pay money to see Jackie Chan walk!” That kind of thinking has netted him several broken bones and a brain hemorrhage. But he’s not the only filmmaker who’s taken extreme risks—and not just with stunts—in order to deliver a more compelling cinematic experience.
1. Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)
In the 1960s and 1970s, the territory policed by New York City’s 41st Precinct was so saturated with crime that it sometimes averaged two murders a week. After many of its citizens relocated, the remaining locals took offense to the production of Fort Apache, The Bronx, a dramatization of the area starring Paul Newman. A neighborhood committee that had seen a script expressed disappointment that the film portrayed the area as dangerous, and when the cast and crew rolled in for shooting, they made their irritation known. Demonstrators and law enforcement frequently stood opposite one another; toilets were thrown from rooftops, smashing to pieces seven stories below and creating potential for a very different end to Paul Newman's career.
2. Roar (1981)
While best known for playing the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller The Birds, Tippi Hedren is also a noted animal activist. In 1971, she and then-husband Noel Marshall decided to film a movie about a scientist and his family living a domestic life with lions. Hedren raised cubs to be comfortable around the actors—she cast herself and her children, including Melanie Griffith—and began shooting in 1976. Animal trainers wanted little to do with the film, and for good reason: The cats were unpredictable, injuring at least 70 cast and crew members over years of erratic filming. Cinematographer Jan De Bont’s head was gouged open, requiring 120 stitches. “I am amazed,” Noel’s son, John, told Entertainment Weekly, “that no one died.”
3. The Abyss (1989)
Shooting for extended periods while submerged in a water tank taxed director James Cameron and his crew. Too much chlorine made some of their hair fall out; because Cameron wore ankle weights to stay at the bottom of the tank, he was at the mercy of his assistant director, who was supposed to warn him when he was low on oxygen. One day, he didn’t—and Cameron couldn’t catch the eye of the safety divers or other crew members. Gasping for air, he ditched his camera equipment and tried to swim to the surface. A diver stopped him, thinking he’d blow out his lungs if he surfaced too quickly. Cameron socked him in the face, barely made it to the top, and then fired people.
4. The General (1926)
With a reputation for putting his movies first and his life second, Buster Keaton has been hailed as one of the greatest film stars of all time. For The General, about a conductor trying to keep his train from being seized by the Union during the Civil War, Keaton insisted on using practical shots whenever possible. That meant sparks from a wood-fired train starting a forest fire (fortunately, the National Guard happened to be shooting nearby) or Keaton sitting on the drive rod that pushes the wheels while the engine roared to life, stirring him around. If it had started too fast, he would have been a goner.
5. The African Queen (1951)
Shooting in the Belgian Congo proved to be a wise choice when it came to the authenticity of The African Queen. At the time, though, some members of the cast and crew may have been reconsidering their decision. Remote and undeveloped, the location for the shoot was home to an endless array of poisonous snakes and undrinkable water. Malaria was spreading, as was the indignity of contracting the gastrointestinal infection dysentery; one crew member got appendicitis. Armies of ants and elephant stampedes had to be accounted for during shooting. Virtually everyone—including Katharine Hepburn—was felled by something, though Humphrey Bogart managed to make it out of the jungle unscathed. He and director John Huston figured their good fortune was due to their constant drinking.
6. Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Director Michael Curtiz had some very particular ideas about how best to represent gangster life in Angels with Dirty Faces. For a shot where star James Cagney is pursued by attackers, he tried to insist Cagney stay still while marksmen shot real bullets near him. Curtiz assured Cagney the shooters were pros; Cagney, being possessed of at least average intellect, refused. The shooter fired, and one of the bullets ricocheted right where Cagney’s head had been just moments before. Curtiz was later nominated for a Best Director Oscar for two films, including Angels, for that year. He lost to Frank Capra, who presumably did not fire live ammunition at his actors.