#3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Almost Featured a Real Decapitation
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is probably the most respected Western of all time, and now that we've said the name of the movie, you can't get the theme song out of your head (nor should you want to, it's awesome). There's a scene at some point during the 80 hours this thing lasts where Eli Wallach's character, Tuco (aka the Ugly), leaps from a train, bringing a guard he's handcuffed to with him.
"I can't pee if you're watching, or if I haven't murdered someone."
Tuco kills the guard when they land, but since he can't go around the desert dragging behind a uniformed corpse, he lies down near the railroad tracks and lets an oncoming train break the handcuff's chain for him.
This was also how they opened walnuts in the Old West.
Today, they would have added the train digitally and just told the actor to use his imagination, but since this was before CGI or giving a shit if actors died, they really had Wallach lie down next to a speeding train. What Wallach didn't notice (because he was too busy hugging the ground and trying not to cry) was that this particular train had iron steps that were just inches away from the ground ... meaning that if he had decided to get up before it had finished passing, he would have been decapitated.
You can actually see the potentially head-cutting steps in another shot:
The Good and the Bad just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Director Sergio Leone either didn't know about the steps or didn't bother to mention them to Wallach. Considering that this wasn't the only time Wallach could have died during this shoot, we're going with the second option. The other came in this scene, where Tuco was going to be hanged but was saved at the last second by Clint Eastwood's character shooting the rope. For the scene, Wallach was sitting on a horse with a noose around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. There was a small charge of dynamite on the rope to make sure it split when Eastwood fired his prop gun.
"Can't I just pretend to have my hands tied?"
The problem was that the horse was so immersed in its part that it really got spooked by the noise and took off -- it galloped for about a mile with Wallach on its back, arms still tied, totally unable to control the horse, or stop it. And of course, no one thought to secure the actor to the horse or anything like that: Wallach says he had to hold on to the animal with his knees and hope he wasn't thrown to the ground, snapping his neck or worse in the process.
"Shit, someone go find his corpse so we can at least reshoot the hanging."
#2. Buster Keaton Just Didn't Give a Fuck
Buster Keaton was like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and the entire cast of Jackass. Chaplin may have been the more popular silent comedy star, but Keaton succeeded at being infinitely more badass, as evidenced by his insanely dangerous stunts.
Those are the eyes of a man who doesn't know fear.
For example, if there's one gag from Keaton's movies you're familiar with, it's the one in Steamboat Bill, Jr. from 1924, where a guy is standing in front of a building during a cyclone and the entire wall of the building falls on him -- fortunately, he's standing in just the right spot to not be flattened, because he was lined up with where the window was cut.
How do you suppose they did that? A cardboard facade? Photo trickery? Animatronics? Nothing so fancy: They just dropped a two-ton wall on a guy and hoped he didn't get squashed. And yes, that's the real Buster Keaton, not a double, and since he also co-wrote and co-directed this movie, it's his own damn fault he was there.
"Oooh, a penny."
They couldn't use a fake wall because it would have rippled in the wind from the cyclone, and Keaton didn't want fanboys going on their telegraphs and complaining that the scene looked fake. According to Keaton, the opening was "exactly 3 inches over my head and each shoulder" -- had a single person involved in the stunt miscalculated, this would have turned into a snuff film. If the movie wasn't silent, you'd probably hear a bunch of people going "BY GOLLY!" and "MOTHER FUCK!" -- apparently, the whole crew looked away as the thing fell.
"Let me know when you drop ... oh, we're done?"
But Keaton didn't always escape his shoots unharmed. In the same year, he also released a film called Sherlock Jr., which included a stunt where Keaton is left hanging from a water pipe and pushed down to the ground when the water comes out:
"At least no one can tell if I peed myself."
That's all real, too: Keaton was supposed to come down with a rope, but the pressure from the water was so strong that he got knocked to the ground and hit his head on the rail, badly fracturing his neck. Keaton kept shooting and didn't even notice the fracture until an X-ray revealed it 10 years later.
"Technically, you're dead right now, but other than that, you're fine."
#1. Fritz Lang: Making Classics by Burning, Drowning, and Beating Actors
Fritz Lang's silent epic Metropolis is an undisputed cinematic classic with an influence that extends to music, comics, animation, and even fashion. It was also Hitler's favorite movie. Considering that some of the filming techniques used to create it would now qualify as torture methods, we can see why.
In the movie, there's a scene where the female lead (a lady-looking robot) is burned at the stake. The fire engulfs her and melts her clothes and skin, revealing her robotic interior.
Behold, the genesis of Rule 34.
The character's robot powers weren't real, but unfortunately for the actress, the flames were. Lang put her so close to the fire that, at one point, her dress started burning -- Lang himself had to put her out with a fire extinguisher before she got hurt, probably because she still had some scenes to shoot in the movie.
If that's the way Lang treated his lead actress, imagine what he did to his extras. There's a scene where the living quarters of the workers start getting flooded while their children are alone there. Talk about potent social commentary, right? Lang created this moving scene by forcing his extras (including dozens of little children) to stand in cold water for hours and ordering them to move closer to the jets of water until they nearly drowned.
Most of that is tears.
For truly pointless cruelty in a classic, you have to look at Lang's M, the movie that made a star out of Peter Lorre, probably best known for his appearance in Casablanca and for looking like Ren from Ren & Stimpy. Toward the end, Lorre's character gets the shit beaten out of him by an angry mob. There's one close-up shot where you see him getting kicked right in the shin with a hobnailed boot:
Which was a subtle metaphor of when man gets kicked right in the shin with a hobnailed boot.
There was no reason why Peter Lorre had to be in that shot: All you see is his leg, so they could have easily used an extra here. Lang not only forced Lorre to do the scene himself, basically threatening to sue him if he didn't, but repeated the take 13 times, leaving the actor unable to walk for days. People on the set said they also saw Lorre being dragged down a flight of stairs while wrapped in a carpet 18 freaking times ... for a scene that wasn't even used in the movie.
"Oh, no, that one was for my personal collection."
A surprising amount of real violence also went into Dustin Koski's book, Six Dances to End the World.
For more insane lengths taken to make movie magic, check out 12 Classic Movie Moments Made Possible by Abuse and Murder. Or learn about 9 Awesome Directors Who Temporarily Lost Their Mind.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Ways Horse Meat Proves a Zombie Apocalypse Can Happen.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn whether or not Harrison Ford was encased in Carbonite.
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