The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

It's obvious Hollywood wants us to think it cares about the fragile environment. But when it comes time to getting just the right shot, wiping out a big hunk of ecosystem is considered a small price to pay.
The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

Whether you're watching a bunch of environmentally conscious shows during NBC's "Green Week" or taking in cautionary tales like The Day After Tomorrow, it's obvious Hollywood cares about our fragile environment.

Or at least they want us to think they do. When it comes time to getting just the right shot, wiping out a big hunk of ecosystem is considered a small price to pay. For instance ...

Apocalypse Now Nuked Acres of Forest

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

As ridiculous film shoots go, few can top Apocalypse Now. There was the mental breakdown and near death of Martin Sheen, the troubles filming in an actual war zone and a typhoon that destroyed an entire set.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"CUT! Hey, stop bleeding, asshole. We still have two more takes."

But then there's the most iconic shot in a film full of iconic shots, the opening scene of the palm trees burning under a storm of napalm as Jim Morrison wails over the top about Oedipus and the transient nature of existence. Most people are probably too distracted by one of the finest opening shots in film to actually contemplate how it was achieved.

After all, it's an impressive special effect for 1979. How did they go about making it look like a huge section of forest had been burned to the ground?

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

Surprise! They did it by actually burning a huge section of forest to the ground.

That's pretty much it. Around 1,200 gallons of gasoline were poured over the splendid palm trees and then set alight. Tires were also burned to generate more smoke for the shot, while canisters were dropped onto the area to look like falling napalm. Acres of the forest were destroyed in a matter of seconds. Fitting, for a shot that was supposed to visually demonstrate the mindless, indiscriminate destruction of war.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"Now we'll highlight the tragic reality of unwanted puppies by throwing this sack in the river."

The sequence was shot in the Philippines, and it was fortunate for the production that all those pesky tree-huggers were an ocean away -- or as Francis Ford Coppola put it, "They'd never let you in the U.S., the environmentalists would kill you."

Then again, this was the 1970s. Hollywood learned its lesson in the decades since, right? Well ...

Leo DiCaprio's The Beach Destroyed a Paradise

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

You're nobody in the entertainment industry if you haven't attended at least one fundraiser for the environment, or at least made a movie about it. Likewise, the studios themselves know they have to stay on the cutting edge of the cause. Universal Studios has added solar-powered carts for employees on the lot. Warner Bros. has a sustainability page of their website that explores "waste reduction" and "green building" ideas for filming. So it's clear the industry sees itself as something of a leader when it comes to teaching the world to give Mother Nature a hug, and possibly a sensual massage, depending on the type of movie they're making at the time.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"Fronds with Benefits? No, that probably sucks."

So, when the creators of the 2000 film The Beach came to shoot on the idyllic location of Maya Beach in the Phi Phi Islands off Thailand, they knew their responsibilities were not only to make a great film but to also take excellent care of the local ecosystem ... two tasks at which they failed miserably. In a fitting twist, the message of The Beach is ostensibly that trying to preserve an untouched paradise is futile. A message they wholeheartedly endorsed by laying waste to one of the most pristine islands in all of the South Pacific.

The island was initially chosen by location scouts for Fox Studios not because of its astounding natural beauty, but because of its potential for a landscaping rethink.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"What this virgin paradise really needs is some Hollywood razzle-dazzle."

The script called for a clearing on the beach large enough to play football, so they bulldozed a whole heap of the native trees and vegetation. Now it's possible they didn't know that actual ecosystems don't function the same way as film sets; you can't just tear down a whole section and not expect some horrific recourse by Mother Nature, but more on that in a second. They also planted a hundred non-native palm trees just to get the right look, essentially introducing an exotic species to the island that could threaten to take over and effectively change the habitat forever.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"That bulldozer really complements all the dead monkeys."

While the whole thing was an eyesore for anyone who wasn't looking at it through the camera lens, the real damage didn't come until the filmmakers left the island. The usual seasonal storms hit the beach, but this time the sand dunes didn't have the protection of their natural vegetation. They collapsed immediately and washed out to sea, damaging the fragile coral reef on their way out.

Environmentalists were outraged and accused the filmmakers of bribing the Thai government to get around pesky legal issues; for instance, the National Park Act, which was specifically designed to prevent this exact sort of thing. The ugly back story is that Fox donated the equivalent of $100,000 to the Royal Forestry Development in Thailand; the normal fee for filming on the island is less than one percent of that. Magically, they were allowed the freedom to remodel the island as much as they pleased after the money changed hands.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

And then tourists swamped the island, which isn't bad for a book that rails against that kind of thing.

Environmentalists were understandably furious. They sought legal action against Fox Studios, its local coordinator Santa International and Thai government officials. Seven years later, the court penalized the film company for unnecessary ecological destruction and ordered them to repair all environmental damage to Maya Beach, which is a nice sentiment until you consider that that's not just planting a couple trees. They're expected to rebuild the marine life population they wiped out, and these are people who couldn't tell the difference between types of palm trees.

A Jacques Cousteau Documentary on Sea Life Blows the Shit Out of It

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

Ecologist, explorer, author and fish whisperer Jacques Cousteau was famous for his environmental work and for giving everyone in the world their first intimate view of ocean life through his countless documentaries. In fact, his documentary The Silent World was the first to ever win the Palme d'Or Award at Cannes in 1956 and also picked up an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.


And the Craziest Smile Award.

It inspired a generation of marine biologists by offering a glimpse into the world of swimming with sea turtles, exploring coral-covered shipwrecks and blowing up hundreds of fish with dynamite.

Wait, what?

During the film, Cousteau decides to do a complete census of the local marine life in a coral reef, which is exactly the sort of educational study we'd expect from our genial explorer. What we don't expect is for him to do it by killing everything in sight with explosives.

As far as we understand it, a census is used to determine exactly what's living in a particular area, so killing it all sort of negates the practice. But we also don't have fancy titles like "oceanographic technicians," so maybe we're off base.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"Science has a price. And that price is all the fish."

And it's not like The Silent World smooths over the killing -- during the census scene, we hang on the image of a puffer fish slowly exhaling buckets of water and dying on top of a pile of corpses.

In another scene of unprovoked ocean mutilation, we see a sperm whale that has been inadvertently hurt by the film crew's boat. The animal, now seriously injured, is mercifully put out of its misery by the crew. A group of sharks are then attracted to the dead mammal and begin to feast on its remains. Such is the circle of life, except the members of Cousteau's team decide to attack the sharks with axes, tuna hooks and crowbars, killing every last one of them for no good reason at all.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"It's a newly discovered species, so we don't know if that panicked wheezing is normal or not."

Cousteau later realized the error of his ways and became much more environmentally friendly -- he won the UN's International Environmental Prize in 1977 -- leaving his fish-exploding past behind.

The Ten Commandments Built a City and Then Buried It

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

In the early days of cinema when the industry was lawless, the name Cecil B. DeMille was synonymous with a complete disregard for budgets, deadlines and human safety. Yet despite the train wrecks his projects should have been, he somehow managed to crank out overblown blockbusters that were critically hated but publicly adored. He was the Michael Bay of the early 1900s, the king of crowd-pleasing spectacle.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

In the next scene, the cows start fixing cars in their bras and panties.

So, when he was shooting the original The Ten Commandments film in 1923, DeMille was not likely to cut corners on any of the effects. He was determined to have everything as authentic as possible, stating, "We don't fake anything in pictures; we've got to have the real thing." Unfortunately for DeMille, the story was inconveniently set in ancient Egypt, making authenticity a little tricky. Logically, the next best thing was to rebuild ancient Egypt in California.

The set was the largest ever built. It included four 35-foot-tall, 20-ton pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes and 300 chariots. The entire thing took an army of 1,000 workers more than a month to build.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

How long did it take those slackers in Egypt to build theirs?

The production was so massive that the studio threatened to pull the plug on the whole film if he didn't tone it down, but DeMille presumably stared them in the eye while ordering 5,000 animals and more than 2,500 extras to top it all off. Then everything was shipped piece by piece by train from Hollywood 150 miles north to the Guadalupe sand dunes in California.

Now, building a life-size replica of ancient Egypt is one thing, but what to do with it when you've finished filming? Already over budget, DeMille didn't fancy paying to have it taken back to Hollywood, where other filmmakers might actually have some use for it again. He also knew he couldn't just leave it all standing there in the desert. So, he did what anyone would do: He hired a load of bulldozers and spent a day pushing sand over it. Remarkably, he did it all in complete secret, too. Most locals assumed the props had been taken with the crew, so they never bothered hunting for the remains.

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And just so no one would talk, he buried the crew, too.

The Lost City of DeMille stayed buried for over 60 years before a young film buff named Peter Brosnan happened to be reading the director's autobiography, where DeMille mentioned that one of the most lavish film sets ever constructed was lying under some Californian sand. In 1983, Brosnan and his friends discovered the set and found that much of it was still completely intact, albeit a bit sandy. They have since attempted to raise money to preserve the site, but so far people seem content to let it stayed buried until it's rediscovered thousands of years from now and confuses the hell out of those silver-suited archaeologists.

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"By Jove, this could be the Lost Tomb of the Kardashians!"

Ben-Hur and Charge of the Light Brigade Slaughtered Horses

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

We've previously established that the chariot race in the 1925 film Ben-Hur was one of the most dangerous film shoots in history. In a quest for realism at the expense of life, the film recreated a full on, no-holds-barred chariot race among the stuntmen with a $100 incentive for the winner, and at least one loser was treated to the consolation prize of death. But that's not why it's on our list; the scene was also responsible for killing around 100 horses.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

They still segregated horses back then, too. It was a different time.

The majority of those deaths were thanks to one man: B. Reeves Eason. He was the second unit director in charge of the chariot race and seemed to have a real vendetta against horses. When an animal had a problem, instead of getting treatment from a vet it, he'd just shoot it instead. Worst of all, most of those horses were killed during the disastrous yearlong shoot in Italy, of which almost none of the original footage made it into the final movie.

The race was shot again in America, this time with much fewer animal fatalities, although the crash at the very end of the race is real and resulted in five horse deaths alone.

But before you accuse Ben-Hur of being one of the bloodiest film productions in history, Casablanca director Michael Curitz created a movie in 1936 called The Charge of the Light Brigade that was responsible for so many horse deaths that people stopped counting.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"Here's looking at horse carnage, kid."

In the scene depicting the charge for which the movie was named, the battlefield was strewn with trip wires. When the director shouted, "Bring on the empty horses," meaning the horses without riders, the handlers sent them all sprinting full speed toward their doom. At least 25 were killed, although some people claim the figure was as high as 200. If you're wondering what kind of monster could be so careless with the life of those animals, then you may not be surprised to learn that the scene was organized by the film's second unit director, one B. Reeves Eason, the same man who was by that point famous for killing as many horses as anyone would let him.

The 5 Most Horrifyingly Wasteful Film Shoots

"This is the touching scene where a guy puts a horse out of its misery. No, it won't be in the final cut."

The numerous animal deaths forced Congress to look at animal abuse in film for the first time. Its star Errol Flynn later asserted in his autobiography that it was he who complained to the ASPCA.

Due to the use of trip wires and many animal deaths, Charge of the Light Brigade has never been rereleased by Warner Bros., although the scene has managed a second life as raw material for Iron Maiden's music video for "The Trooper." See, horses? It was all worth it after all.


But it's viewed with a rose-tinted lens, so we don't feel anything anymore.

For more from Kevin read Listening for Grasshoppers, the blog, not the book (to which he is unaffiliated), or follow him on Twitter.

For more disturbing Hollywood stories, check out 9 Awesome Directors Who Temporarily Lost Their Mind and 12 Classic Movie Moments Made Possible by Abuse and Murder.

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