3. The Deadliest Movie Set in the History of Hollywood?
They Died With Their Boots On, a fictionalized depiction of George Armstrong Custer’s life from when he first entered West Point to his death at Little Big Horn, was one of 1941’s biggest box office draws. It was also one of the deadliest and most injurious movie sets in the history of Hollywood. With a cast led by Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who was reunited with Gone With the Wind’s fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel, the film won critical acclaim on top of its commercial success.
The movie was marred by significant tragedy, however, as three crew and cast members had died from various causes on set. The film appeared to have been jinxed from early on, and misfortune seemingly stalked the production. At some point Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it was touch and go for the famous actor. In the early days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, eighty personnel were injured, and three perished.
2. Errol Flynn Was Badgered by His Buddy Until He Got Him a Gig as an Extra
The first fatality on the set of They Died With Their Boots On was a stuntman who had a massive coronary, and dropped dead on the set from a heart attack. Next to perish was an extra who had no prior horseback riding experience. It did not help that he was also reportedly drunk. The end result is that he fell off his steed as it galloped, and broke his neck. However, the best known of the set’s deaths was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941), an experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn.
The two often played polo together, and Budlong badgered his famous actor pal to get him on the set. Flynn relented, asked around and called in some favors, and eventually secured his buddy a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic at the time: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many scenes with people on horseback. However, Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm – or maybe simple stupidity – with tragic results.
In a scene that depicted a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate forces, Jack Budlong eschewed the use of a prop sword. Instead, he insisted on the use of a real saber while he led a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As a coroner’s inquest described what happened next, Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield”. He enthusiastically waved his saber like Yosemite Sam, while prop explosions went off all around to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Unfortunately, Budlong’s horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise.
The hose panicked and started to buck, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle fifteen to twenty feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, pierced his abdomen and exited out his back. Budlong was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he succumbed to them. His demise brought to three the number of deaths in production, which made They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives as the cameras rolled: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading