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6 Movie Sets That Could Have Killed Someone

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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.

Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?

Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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