A Movie to Die For: 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' and the History of On Set Tragedy


When "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" hits theaters this week, moviegoers will be treated to a high-octane display of blockbuster-style movie violence, as the sinister terrorist group Cobra manages to blow up the entire city of London before the Joes strike back for their titular retribution. Hey, if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

But while on screen death for your entertainment is nothing new in Hollywood, the violence in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is colored by the fact that this time, that entertainment came at the price of an off-screen, real life death as well.

And the thing is, that's not new for Hollywood either.

It's a bit of an industry secret, but the death of a crew member on the set of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," while relatively rare, is hardly unheard of. In fact, the death, which occurred in November of 2011 when a mechanical lift collapsed, came less than a month after a stuntman was killed on the set of "The Expendables 2" when an explosion went awry.

Accidents like the one on the set of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," of course, could happen in any workplace environment that involves the use of heavy machinery. For instance, during filming of the 2008 sci-fi flick "Jumper," a crew member was killed when debris from a set being dismantled fell on him.

But should the fact that crew members were killed during filming affect fan enjoyment of what is supposed to be simple escapist entertainment? Is it worth it? And should Hollywood be doing more to make sure such accidents don't happen in the first place?

Naturally, there are regulations in place designed to minimize the possibility of on-set injuries and fatalities. And like most such regulations, they came about as a reaction to a disaster, in this case the filming of the 1928 biblical epic "Noah's Ark." Directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later go on to helm "Casablanca," "Noah's Ark" was marred by the drowning deaths of three extras and injuries to several others during filming of the flood sequence. Fallout from this tragedy forced Hollywood to implement safety measures.

And yet, those regulations are all too often ignored by studios cutting corners to save money or in some instances by the filmmakers themselves. For example, John Jordan, the second unit director on the 1970 film "Catch-22," was killed in a particularly gruesome accident; after reportedly refusing to wear a safety harness while filming a stunt aboard an airplane, he was sucked out of the plane and fell to his death.

But the most infamous instance of on set negligence belongs to 1983's "The Twilight Zone: The Movie." During filming of a key sequence, lead actor Vic Morrow and two child actors — 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen — were killed when a helicopter crashed. The rear rotor blade flew off; Morrow and Le were both decapitated. Producer Steven Spielberg reportedly was incensed with director John Landis, accusing him of cutting safety corners, and after a long round of lawsuits, a number of new safety regulations were again put in place.

Yet despite all the safety measures implemented over the decades, some of our best loved and most popular films have still been secretly marred by off screen deaths. The breathtaking aerial stunts in 1986's "Top Gun," for instance, were achieved at the cost of a stunt pilot's life after his plane crashed into the ocean. Star Brandon Lee famously was shot to death by a prop gun while filming 1994's "The Crow," while stuntman Harry O'Conner died filming the 2000 Vin Diesel hit "XXX" when he crashed into a bridge abutment. And while the post-production death of 2008's "The Dark Knight" star Heath Ledger is well known, most people aren't aware that a cameraman was killed filming stunts for the movie when the truck he was riding in hit a tree.

With the increasing use of CGI, it's possible that these types of accidents will soon be a thing of the past, of course. And yet, at the moment, filmmakers trying to make their action sequences as "authentic" as possible often end up with results that are all too authentic. The results may look cool on the screen, but is it worth it for a couple of hours of escapism?

In the 2000 Best Picture winner "Gladiator," Russell Crowe famously turned to the crowd after killing an opponent and asked, "Are you not entertained?"

Well, of course we are.