Some of you may be enjoying the television drama series Dr. Death, currently airing on DSTV’s MNet Channel. It is based on the true story of Texas surgeon Christopher Duntsch who faced charges in 2010 of injuring 33 out of 38 patients, causing extreme pain, paralysis and even death before his licence was finally revoked by the Texas Medical Board. In the series Duntsch is played brilliantly by Joshua Jackson whilst the two fellow clinicians who set out to have him disqualified, Dr. Robert Henderson and Randall Kirby, are played by Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater respectively. It’s great acting and gripping drams but what else would you expect from those Hollywood A-Listers and a storyline which sounds like a scriptwriter’s flight of imagination but which actually happened and was in many aspects even more severe than its screen enactment.
Sadly, however, Alec Baldwin has found himself in a real-life drama all of his own this past week. I’m sure you have been following the sensational details of an incident in which Baldwin, acting and directing in a low-budget Western movie called ‘Rust’ accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured Assistant Director Joel Souza. It came about whilst the actor and crew were mapping out camera angles and Baldwin was required to shoot directly at the camera. In an accident which is still under investigation Hutchins was fatally hit and Souza, standing behind her, received minor injuries.
The event was received with utter shock and disbelief, not least because Baldwin is a household name and box-office gold. As for the victim, Hutchins leaves behind a grieving husband and young son and it is nothing less than a terrible tragedy. Baldwin himself is said to be devastated and has halted production on the film, taking time off to come to terms with what happened.
The shooting is still under investigation by authorities who have said that criminal charges may be filed. It is therefore not appropriate for us to pre-empt their findings or speculate wildly but it is interesting to take a look at the use of firearms in the movie industry and to consider other aspects of work safety on film sets in general.
Consider first the use of guns which are seen not just in Westerns but in cops and robbers shoot-outs, gang violence, war films, crime drams and many others. Some people have understandably been asking why actors have to use real guns at all. Why not use toy weapons which would be completely harmless? It’s a fair question but the easy answer is that toy guns look and behave like toy guns! Cinema audiences demand a level of authenticity which can only come from using a real weapon which smokes authentically when it is fired and looks like the real McCoy. So though they might be referred to as prop guns, they are in fact genuine weapons which should be slightly modified to fire blanks, rather than live ammunition. However, even blanks can maim and kill if misused and therefore great care has to be taken in use. As a general rule, a distance shot with a blank is considered safe but a close-up firing has to be handled with extreme caution. This is the reason why, in the Rust event, it is not clear as to whether blank or live ammunition was used at present though the most recent reports indicate the round might have been live which clearly would have had no place on a film set. The terminology is also interesting. In the world of film and acting an empty gun is referred to as ‘cold’, a weapon loaded with blanks is ‘hot’ and it appears that in this case Baldwin was told he had a cold weapon in his hands so when he pulled the trigger no-one would have been expecting any projection.
Also, given the level of authenticity demanded, consider how many different weapons are used, depending on the script, the setting and the epoch, everything from machine guns to rifles and hand guns and everything in between. So even if it were possible to use an artificial gun, there would need to be as many ‘toys’ genuine articles and they would have to have the look and feel of the real thing which given today’s high-definition camera work and repro would clearly not pass muster.
Altogether this was a terrible tragedy. All concerned deserve our sympathy, whatever the ultimate outcome since the one thing that can be taken as read is that no-one intended any harm , notwithstanding the fact that clearly errors were made. However, even though as a general rule, dangerous stunts are planned, prepared and rehearsed meticulously, film sets are not immune to accidents:
On the set of the thriller "Gothika," actor Robert Downey Jr. accidentally broke Halle Berry's arm in a scene in which he was required to merely twist it.
Harrison Ford broke his leg on the set of "Star Wars Episode VII" in 2014 when a hydraulic door crushed him. Ford had to have surgery, and the set schedule had to be rearranged.
Stuntwoman Joi Harris died on the set of "Deadpool 2" in 2017while shooting a motorcycle scene. She lost control of the bike, hit a median in the road and was thrown through a window in Shaw Tower in Canada.
Sarah Jones, a young camera assistant, was killed on the first day on the set of "Midnight Rider" in 2014 when a freight train crashed into the crew in Savannah, Georgia.
John Jordan, a second-unit director on "Catch 22," in 1969 was killed on set in a when he was sucked out of the helicopter by a gust of wind and fell 4,000 feet into the ocean. He had refused to wear a harness.
And in a similar event to that of the Rust accident, Brandon Lee, son of martial arts actor Bruce Lee, was killed on the set of "The Crow" in 1993 after he was accidentally shot with a prop gun. The gun was supposed to fire a blank, but an autopsy showed he had a bullet lodged next to his spine.
In the wake of the tragedy California state Senator Dave Cortese announced that he would introduce legislation banning “live ammunition, and firearms that are capable of firing live ammunition, from movie sets and theatrical productions” in the state. However, although Hollywood itself is based in California, for practical , logistical and scripting reasons, much filming work is carried out on location. The sad fact is that no amount of legislation will completely eliminate human error and rare, but horrific accidents in filming as in life.