Movie Stunts Gone Terribly Wrong

Milla Jovovich in movie still for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter 13 photos
Photo: Sony Pictures
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)Olivia Jackson, the stuntwoman hurt on the set of Resident Evil: The Final ChapterThe Cannonball Run (1981)The Cannonball Run (1981)The Cannonball Run (1981)The Cannonball Run (1981)Theatrical release poster for Hell's Angels (1930)Hell's Angels (1930)Hell's Angels (1930)
For years now, there’s been a push to make stunt work more visible by having it recognized at industry awards. Even so, stuntmen remain underpaid and under-represented, while risking their lives so the actors wouldn’t have to.
Stuntmen and stuntwomen are all professionals: they know the risk when they sign up for a job and accept them, while accounting for every possible mistake. The mistakes still happen, though, and many times, they have tragic consequences.

Hollywood history is riddled with examples of stunts gone wrong, from the most recent and very serious accident on the set of Fast & Furious 9 to smaller mishaps. Below are 3 of the most tragic and most mediated, at their respective times.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)

Olivia Jackson is a young, now-former stuntwoman whose work includes Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. During the production of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, she was doubling for Milla Jovovich during one of the bike chase scenes, when she rode directly into the arm of a mechanical camera.

According to the lawsuit that’s still underway as we speak, Jackson claims that the camera should have gone above her head, for an aerial view of herself on the bike. It didn’t move. She also says producers made subtle changes to the stunt in the last hour, which eventually led to the crash.

Olivia Jackson, the stuntwoman hurt on the set of Resident Evil\: The Final Chapter
Photo: Instagram / Olivia Jackson
The impact was devastating for Jackson: half her face was degloved, an artery in her neck was severed and her arm was crushed. Doctors would amputate the arm later, when she woke from the coma but could no longer bear to live with the pain. Jackson also suffered damaged nerves and a brain hemorrhage, a torn lung and numerous other fractures.

In court documents filed in October 2019, in response to Jackson’s suit which asks for damages and coverage of medical bills, producers claim she was ok with all modifications to the stunt, as she voiced no concerns during rehearsals. They also blame her for the crash.

The Cannonball Run (1981)

Going back in time a bit, a classic for the action movie genre. With a star-studded cast and a plot that allows for action scenes both on the ground and on water, and also in the air, it was directed by Hollywood’s most famous stuntman, Hal Needham. It was also a tragedy waiting to happen.

Heidi von Beltz was 24 years old when the production was underway. She got a call from her then-boyfriend, stunt coordinator Bobby Bass, about doubling for Farrah Fawcett in a scene in which she would be a passenger in a car driving headlong into traffic. He assured her that shooting the scene would be a breeze.

The Cannonball Run \(1981\)
Photo: Golden Harvest Productions
The reality was that the Aston Martin used was barely functional. It had bald tires, defective steering and a bad clutch, and had to be pushed to start. It also had no seat belts and both Needham and Bass decided against waiting another hour until they were fitted, and ordered the driver and von Beltz to prepare to shoot.

The car crashed into the first vehicle in the line and von Beltz was thrown against the windshield. The impact crushed her neck and she was left a paraplegic for the rest of her life. Years later, she was awarded $4.6 million in the lawsuit against producers. Her accident also promoted stricter safety regulations for stunt work in Hollywood, making seat belts mandatory.

Hell's Angels (1930)

The number one aviation epic. Even by today’s standards, Hell’s Angels remains a classic: a movie with stunning aerial acrobatics, excellent visual effects, and daring stunts and dogfighting scenes. It’s also a movie with a very controversial and outrageous backstory, which cost somewhere in the vicinity of $4 million and 4 human lives to make.

Hell’s Angels is the brainchild of billionaire, aviator and film producer Howard Hughes. With money to spare and a desire to show Hollywood how a real aviation epic should look, he bought almost 90 vintage planes, hired over 150 pilots and stuntmen, and set to work for what would become Hell’s Angels – initially planned as a silent film but eventually turned into a talkie.

Hell's Angels \(1930\)
Photo: United Artists
Hughes himself was injured on the set, when he took over from a stuntman who was afraid to dive with a plane down to 200 feet above ground before pulling up. But he actually got away easily with just a few days’ worth of hospitalization and facial surgery: 3 pilots and 1 mechanic were not as lucky.

One pilot died when he crashed into wires, and another crashed while delivering the plane to the shooting location near Van Nuys, California. An Australian pilot also lost his life while doing stunts, as did a mechanic who was riding in one of the planes with a smoke machine. The plane was doing a dive from 7,500 feet and the pilot ejected, but the mechanic didn’t hear the warning and stayed behind: he was killed on the spot.

Hell’s Angels ran for 19 full weeks in fully-packed venues in the U.S. and was a roaring success. It wasn’t able to recoup its large production budget but it cemented Hughes’ career in Hollywood. Today, the death of 4 of its crewmembers is mentioned as a selling point for a classic.

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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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