Movie stunts that went horribly wrong

Actors and directors get most of the praise when a film does well. And while they don't get as much attention as they deserve, composers and screenwriters at least get their own Oscars. But the real unsung heroes of Hollywood are the stunt doubles—the men and women who put their lives on the line to make our action scenes look amazing.

Of course, working as a stunt double is a super dangerous gig. When you're jumping out of moving vehicles or falling to Earth from amazing heights, one little mistake can end in absolute disaster. And sadly, film history is filled with tragic moments when movie stunts went horribly, horribly wrong.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

Terry Leonard has done some pretty wild movie stunts. Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones is getting dragged under a truck? That's Leonard. Remember that amazing train wreck in The Fugitive (a scene that also involved Harrison Ford)? Leonard was the second-unit director in charge of that scene. And if you've seen 1984's Romancing the Stone, then there's no way you've forgotten when that car goes over a waterfall, forcing Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner to jump for their lives. As you might've guessed, that was Leonard too, and it was almost his very last stunt.

So let's set the scene. Leonard and fellow stuntman Vince Deadrick Jr. (who's doubling for Turner) are floating down a river, getting ready for their big tumble into oblivion. There are special platforms attached to the car that act as diving boards, and the guys will use these platforms to jump clear of the car…and the whirlpool below. But as the car goes over the edge, Leonard's board malfunctions, and he falls straight into the circle of death.

Yeah, Leonard was absolutely terrified. "I thought I was history," he told the L.A. Times, and he had to fight with every ounce of his energy to break free of the whirlpool's grasp. But things weren't going smoothly for Deadrick, either—he'd hit the water hard and was totally stunned. Thankfully, a group of firemen fished him out of the river, saving him from the second, bigger waterfall that was just around the bend. But their bad luck and hard work paid off, earning both men the award for "most spectacular stunt" at the annual Stuntman Awards.

The Hangover Part II (2011)

It goes without saying that comedies are supposed to be funny. Of course, getting laughs is a lot harder than it sounds, and while some people probably found The Hangover Part II hilarious, most critics considered the film a failure. If you check out Rotten Tomatoes, you'll see the movie described as "crueler" and "darker" than the original Hangover, but what we see onscreen is nothing compared to what happened behind the scenes.

During one Bangkok street scene, stuntman Scott McLean was doubling for actor Ed Helms, and all he was supposed to do was stick his head out of a car window. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, according to McLean, somebody screwed up big time. In court documents, the Australian stuntman alleged the second unit stunt coordinator "commanded the driver…that the speed of his vehicle be increased significantly to a speed unsafe for the stunt." Evidently, the car was going too fast, and as a result, McLean's head was rammed right into a truck.

Thankfully, McLean survived the incident, but pretty much everything else that could go wrong did. After waking up from a six-week coma, the stuntman was forced to undergo eight months of intensive rehab. Even worse, as of 2013, McLean was suffering from seizures that sometimes lasted up to 12 minutes, and he required someone nearby 24/7. Wanting justice, McLean sued Warner Bros. and several individuals involved with the film's production, and the case was settled out of court.

Tragically, two years later, the company supposedly still hadn't taken care of the stuntman's medical bills, and as of 2015, McLean was still recuperating from his injury. Here's hoping for a complete recovery.

McQ (1974)

If you were to ask, "Who's the greatest stuntman of all time?," you might hear the name Hal Needham. At one time, he was the highest-paid stuntman in the biz and doubled for A-listers like Charles Bronson, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Reynolds. In one TV show, he tackled a horseman to the ground after jumping off an airplane. In the film Gator, he wowed audiences with a 138-foot jump in an air boat. This guy was so good that he was actually the first person ever used to test air bags, and thanks to his crazy career, Needham accumulated quite a few scars over the years.

"I've broken 56 bones," he bragged, "broke my back twice, punctured a lung, and knocked out a few teeth." And he suffered quite a few of those injuries while working on the John Wayne cop movie McQ. In the film's climactic scene, Wayne is driving down a beach with several gangsters in hot pursuit. The Duke blasts the bad guys with a machine gun, causing their car to flip and roll down the sand.

However, Needham was faced with a unique situation. Usually, if he needed to flip a car, he'd just use a ramp, but there was nowhere to hide the device on the flat beach. So Needham created a little device called the McQ cannon, a homemade gun loaded with black powder. When triggered, the cannon fired a three-foot telephone pole at the ground, tossing the car in the air. But after an initial test run, Needham realized he needed way more than one cannon, so he strapped four of these bombs to the bottom of his car.

This was a big mistake.

After detonating all four devices, the car went 30 feet into the air and crumpled on impact. After crawling out of a broken window, the stuntman was rushed to a hospital where Needham learned he'd broken his back and six ribs, punctured a lung, and lost a couple of chompers. Adding insult to injury, when it came time to roll film, Needham was still holed up in the hospital so the actual stunt was performed by a guy named Gary McLarty. As you might expect, he didn't use quite as many bombs.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017)

Olivia Jackson has stunted on some of the biggest films of the 2010s. She worked on the sci-fi blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and she doubled for Charlize Theron and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in Mad Max: Fury Road. Tragically, her amazing career was cut short during a scene for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Filling in for Milla Jovovich, the British stuntwoman was riding on a motorcycle, taking part in one of the movie's chase scenes. As she sped down a street, there was a camera up ahead, connected to a mechanical crane. The plan was for the camera to swoop over Jackson as she drove by.

But as the stuntwoman put it, writing for Glamour, "I did exactly that, but the camera did not."

Unfortunately, the camera didn't move, and Jackson plowed straight into a huge chunk of metal. The resulting crash was absolutely devastating, degloving Jackson's face, severing an artery in her neck, and causing her brain to both bleed and swell. And that's not even mentioning the nerves ripped from her spine, the numerous broken bones, and her damaged lung. "Not my funnest day on set," the stuntwoman wrote after waking up from a two-week medically induced coma. Jackson was then forced to learn how to walk again, but even worse, she was forced to have her now-paralyzed arm amputated.

However, despite all these horrible setbacks, Jackson has maintained an incredibly optimistic outlook. "If I was asked a year ago how I'd react if I lost my arm," she wrote, "I'd have answered, 'Wail, scream, cry.' But we are all stronger than we know. If we believe in ourselves, we can do anything we want."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1 (2010)

When most people think of the Harry Potter movies, they remember Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Stone, Alan Rickman or Ralph Fiennes. Diehard film fans might also think of directors like Alfonso Cuaron or Chris Columbus. But while he isn't as famous as some of his coworkers, David Holmes was an integral part of the Harry Potter universe. After all, the stuntman doubled for Radcliffe as far back as Sorcerer's Stone. The guy was part of this wizarding world since the very beginning, so it was an absolute shock when he suffered a terrible injury on the set of Deathly Hallows.

During this particular scene, Holmes was supposed to be flying through the air when an explosion knocked him backward. Per usual, Holmes was rigged in a harness and all prepared to perform a "jerk-back," a stunt where a wire yanks him backward. It's a pretty standard move, only this time, something went horribly wrong. When Holmes was pulled back, he slammed into a wall and broke his neck before tumbling to the ground. The accident left the young man paralyzed from the chest down (though he's still able to use his arms).

But as of 2015, Holmes seems to be doing better than you might expect, largely thanks to a specially-designed home that allows him to "control everything from the curtains to the underfloor heating" with the help an iPad. Holmes even credits the house with changing his life for the better. And as for Daniel Radcliffe, the actor is still close with his stuntman buddy, describing his old friend as "an incredibly important person in my life."

The Cannonball Run (1981)

Directed by legendary stuntman Hal Needham, The Cannonball Run boasted an all-star cast including Burt Reynolds, Jackie Chan, Roger Moore, and Farrah Fawcett. An action-comedy about a cross-country race, the film naturally featured a whole lot of crazy car stunts, including one scene in which an Aston Martin drives headlong into traffic. Doubling for Fawcett, 24-year-old Heidi von Beltz was riding shotgun and probably wasn't too worried about the day's work. Sadly, von Beltz had no clue she was sitting in a ticking time bomb.

As it turns out, the car was suffering from all sorts of problems. According to Deadline, the Aston Martin had "no seatbelts, bald tires, defective steering, and a malfunctioning clutch." Basically, it was a death trap on wheels, and driver Jimmy Nickerson was understandably worried about what might happen. But Needham and stunt coordinator Bobby Bass didn't want to waste time on repairs, so they told Nickerson to get busy. Against his better judgment, Nickerson took his place behind the wheel, and the car sped off. "The last thing I remember before the crash," von Belt recalled, "was somebody yelling, 'Faster! Faster!' over the walkie-talkie."

You can probably guess what happened next. The car crashed, and von Beltz was violently thrown against the windshield, leaving the young woman quadriplegic. After the accident, her lawyer sued Needham's stuntman corporation and won $4.6 million for his client. Perhaps more importantly, after the wreck, new rules were implemented, making seat belts necessary for any stunt involving an automobile. If nothing else, von Beltz's tragedy might have very well saved lives, and as the stuntwoman said before passing away in 2015, "I'm very proud to have been a part of that."

Multiple James Bond movies

As one of the longest-running franchises in film history, the 007 series has featured its fair share of car chases, fist fights, and epic action scenes. Of course, with over 50 years of amazing movie stunts, you'd have to expect a mishap or two along the way. For example, there were two boat crashes while filming 1973's Live and Let Die. And after shooting that intense train brawl for 2015's Spectre, Daniel Craig was forced to have surgery after seriously hurting his knee. (Hey, he was being tossed around by Dave Bautista. He was lucky it was just his knee.)

But occasionally, these accidents take a much more serious turn. During the filming of Quantum of Solace, stuntman Aris Comninos was taking part in a chase scene when his car slammed into another vehicle before colliding into a guard wall. Then—like a scene out of a, well, Bond movie—Comnino's car was left dangling over a 50-foot drop, forcing rescuers to act fast. After he was pulled from the wreckage, Comninos was left in a coma, but according to The Daily Telegraph, the stuntman was up and about not long after the incident.

However, that's nothing compared to what happened while filming For Your Eyes Only. During one snowy action sequence, Bond is involved in a high-speed bobsled chase. But as the cameras were rolling, one of the sleighs flipped over, trapping stuntman Paolo Rigon underneath as it slid down the track. Sadly, Rigon passed away due to his injuries, proving there's a high price to pay for incredible movie moments.

Hell's Angels (1930)

If you've seen Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, then you know billionaire Howard Hughes was absolutely obsessed with airplanes. The man was also smitten with the cinema, so when the World War I drama Wings won the first Best Picture Oscar in 1929, the Texas tycoon decided to make his own fighter pilot movie, and vowed his would be ten times better. Acting independently from Hollywood, Hughes bought nearly 90 planes, hired an army of stunt pilots, and spent $4 million to get his motion picture off the ground. Titled Hell's Angels, the movie was incredibly costly for its time…in dollars and human lives.

With so many planes buzzing around, it was only a matter of time before somebody went down. And one of the first casualties was Hughes himself. According to film historian Karina Longworth, the billionaire wanted a pilot to dive straight down and then pull up 200 feet before impact. When all of his stuntmen balked, Hughes did the scene himself, taking a camera along to capture the moment. Only it seems the director got distracted filming the scene, as he slammed right into the ground. When the crew arrived at the wreckage, the plane was covered in blood, but believe it or not, Hughes was still in one piece. In fact, just a few days later, he was back on set, running the show.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the only accident that happened on set. During one intense nose dive, pilot Al Wilson flew up 7,500 feet before aiming at the Earth. However, on the way down, the plane started coming apart, forcing Wilson to bail. But while the pilot survived, he wasn't the only one aboard the bomber. A mechanic named Phil Jones had ridden along to operate a smoke machine, and he evidently didn't hear Wilson's warning to eject. So when the plane crumpled into the ground, the mechanic perished in the crash.

In total, four people died while making Hell's Angels, which is what you might expect to happen when you put a nut job behind the camera. But hey, audiences love a madman, and Hell's Angels became a roaring success, cementing Hughes's place in Hollywood.

XXX (2002)

Stuntman Harry O'Connor sounds like he was a pretty amazing dude. A retired Navy SEAL, O'Connor went into the movie business after leaving the military, putting his skydiving skills and physical prowess for the silver screen. Over the years, he worked his stuntman magic in movies like Charlie's Angels and The Perfect Storm, and in 2002, O'Connor was all set to wow audiences with his paragliding abilities in Vin Diesel's newest action flick, XXX.

The stunt was a tricky one. Hooked up to a speedboat, O'Connor was supposed to glide down the Vltava River in Prague and then float underneath the Palacky Bridge. It was a tight squeeze, but O'Connor successfully accomplished the stunt in a number of practice runs. However, the retired SEAL was something of a perfectionist, and he wanted to give it one last go before actually filming the scene. Only this time, as O'Connor was heading for the bridge, he apparently made a mistake in his steering, and instead of flying under the bridge, he crashed straight into a pillar, dying instantly.

The death of the 45-year-old stuntman was a sobering moment for everyone involved, and it left a lasting impression on Diesel. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, the action star admitted the accident was "a big eye opener," and that the tragedy made him focus more on "safety and rehearsal." As Diesel himself put it, "I probably take it—take the rehearsal of action sequences and choreography—that much more serious because of it."

Shark! (1969)

Director Samuel Fuller has quite a few respectable films to his name, like White Dog and The Big Red One. Shark!, on the other hand, is not one of his classier pictures. Starring a young Burt Reynolds as the lead, the film focuses on a gunrunner named Caine who's thrown together with two treasure hunters. The movie had a pretty troubled history, and after the producers re-edited the film, Fuller washed his hands of the project, even asking for his name to be removed from the credits. It's a pretty understandable reaction. After all, the producers even went so far as to rename the movie. Originally called Caine, the powers-that-be decided to retool the title for maximum impact. You see, they wanted to play off the fact that someone was viciously killed by a shark during production while trying to accomplish a movie stunt.

The victim's name was Jose Marco, a Mexican stuntman who was supposed to do a scene with a bull shark. Now, bull sharks are pretty dangerous fish, so the animal was taken onshore for a bit, making it incredibly tired. Then, Marco and the bull shark went back into the ocean to film their big scene, and that's when disaster struck. Only it wasn't the groggy bull that decided to attack. Instead, things took a bloody left turn when a great white broke through a protective net and charged straight for Marco, ripping his stomach wide open.

As the shark eviscerated the stuntman, crew members fired spear guns and tried to distract the killer fish by banging on the sides of cages, eventually forcing the great white to retreat. But it was too little, too late, and Marco passed away just a few hours later. Shockingly, the horrific event was caught and preserved on film, and still images were even featured in Life magazine. It all gets so much worse when you realize the producers changed the name of the film to capitalize on this man's death. That's about as seedy as the movie industry gets.