Twilight Zone: The Movie
This was probably the single most significant on set tragedy, because of its impact on the filming industry and its approach to safety. In the early 1980s, Steven Spielberg and John Landis teamed up to produce a cinematic version of the 1959 – 1964 TV series, The Twilight Zone, for Warner Bros. Studios. The movie, released in June of 1983, received mixed reviews, then and since. It did not turn into the blockbuster Warner Bros. had hoped for, but it grossed enough to count as a financial success. Even before its release, however, the movie had garnered notoriety because of a stunt that caused a helicopter crash, which took the lives of actor Vic Morrow, and two child actors.
The movie consisted of four segments, most memorable of which was “A Quality of Mercy“. It revolved around a racist character, played by Morrow, who finds himself travelling through time to experience the racist persecutions suffered by others. He eventually winds up in Vietnam, where he ends up defending some Vietnamese children against rampaging American soldiers.
To play those children, director John Landis hired a 7 year old ethnically Vietnamese kid, Myca Dinh Le, and a 6 year old Chinese one, Renee Shin-Yi Chen, in violation of California’s child labor laws. The parents were paid under the table, and no permits or waivers were secured to allow the children to work at night, in which the main scene was filmed. As investigators would discover after the tragedy, the filming set was rife with safety violations, and those in charge had taken short cuts to circumvent basic safety precautions.
Most significant were a series of safety violations surrounding the segment’s climactic scene – a nighttime war action sequence, that involved a huge amount of explosives, and a large number of explosions going off. Director Landis did not even attempt to get a waiver – most likely because he knew the request would get denied – to have young children take part in such a dangerous scene.
The scene, shot on the night of July 23rd, 1982, called for US troops in a helicopter to pursue Morrow as he carried two children across a river. It was clearly dangerous, and Morrow’s last words to a friend soon before the tragedy were: “I’ve got to be crazy to do this shot. I should have asked for a double“. During filming, the helicopter hovered about 25 feet above ground, near a debris mortar – a special effects device that uses pressurized air pumped through a tube to propel dirt and detritus, simulating a burst or splatter.
As the helicopter made a 180 degree turn, the debris mortar went off beneath its tail rotor, and blew the rotor clean off. That caused the helicopter to spin out of control, and fall on top of Morrow and the children. Morrow and one of the kids were decapitated by the helicopter’s spinning rotor blades, while the other kid was crushed and drowned. Six other people inside the helicopter were injured.
There had been so many glaring safety violations on set that the accident was investigated as a case of criminal negligence and reckless homicide. As emerged in the subsequent trial, director Landis had been warned of the dangers, but shrugged them off, stating that the loss of the helicopter was an acceptable price for the shot he wanted. When the helicopter pilot had complained that the debris mortar effect was too strong, and that he wanted to get out, Landis yelled at him over the radio to “Get lower! Lower!”
It also emerged that one of the producers had told the children’s parents not to let the firefighters on set, there to ensure compliance with safety regulations, know that their kids would be involved in the scene. The parents were also instructed to hide their children from a welfare worker on set. Additionally, the parents testified that they had never been told that there would be explosives on the set, or that the scene would involve a helicopter hovering over their children.
Criminal and civil litigation lasted for a decade after the accident. Landis and others were charged with manslaughter, but were acquitted after a nine month trial in 1987. Civil litigation continued into the early 1990s. Vic Morrow’s family settled early, but the children’s parents pursued civil lawsuits against various defendants, and ended up collecting millions.
A silver lining of the tragedy was that it shook the filming industry, and shocked it out of its hitherto casual approach to safety on film sets. Studios established committees to set up safety standards, while actors started paying more attention to their own safety, and resisting pressure from directors to do dangerous shots. The Directors Guild also stepped in with its own safety procedures, and began monitoring and penalizing its members for violations of safety rules. It did not completely eliminate dangers on film sets, but it brought about great improvements and made a huge difference.
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