1915’s “The Captive” is patient zero for on-set gun deaths. In the early days of Hollywood, directors often insisted on using real bullets during production. This, inevitably, led to safety issues. In this film, it led to someone’s death. The first recorded on-set death from gunfire, in fact. But, sadly, not the last.
Directed by the one and only Cecil B. DeMille, “The Captive” is a 50-minute movie that is something of a “ripped from the headlines” film. Set during the Balkans War that had just ended when the film was released, “The Captive” tells the story of a Montenegrin woman and a Turkish stowaway who end up together as the result of war.
“With her brother killed, Sonya is given Turkish captive Mahmud to do the hard work on the farm. After they become fond of each other he strikes a Turkish officer. When peace arrives, his blow costs him his noble lands. She is burned out of her house. They meet again on the road with nothing but each other.”
It stars Blanche Sweet, House Peters, and Gerald Ward and was produced by The Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. “The Captive” was written by Jeanie Macpherson – a talented actor and director in her own right – and made for a little over $12,000 (around $340K today) and grossed over $56,000 (over $1.6M today) at the box office.
These were the days when crews, directors, and actors were basically on an assembly line churning out a staggering number of films each year. “The Captive” was one of 13 movies that DeMille directed in 1915. Times have certainly changed.
To illustrate how Risk Management could have made “The Captive” safer, we must first examine the scene that killed a man:
Live Rounds: How to Accidently Kill an Extra
There are various accounts of what happened on the set of “The Captive” that day. The two primary accounts come from DeMille himself (via his autobiography) and star Blanche Sweet (in the book “Speaking of Silents” by William Drew).
What is undisputed is that the soldiers in the scene were firing live ammunition when they shot at the door. DeMille’s account claims that he ordered the extras to reload with blanks before rolling on the rest of the scene. Sweet’s account omits the order to load blanks.
Regardless, an extra accidentally fired a live round and it hit another extra in the head. That extra died.
An accident like this should never happen. To understand how we can avoid a tragedy like this, let’s look at how risk management could have made “The Captive” safer.
How Risk Management Could Have Prevented a Tragedy
Let’s begin with a quick overview of what proper weapons safety looks like on a 21st century set.
To do that, we are going to look at four important elements:
- Weapons master/armorer
- Special ammo
- Special guns
- Union guidelines
When producing a project that involves dangerous weapons, we must first get a trained, professional weapons master.
The easiest way to think of this crew position is as a prop master with a very specific focus: weapons. But that line of thinking is risky because these are not just any old props, these are props that can harm and kill people.
If the lead character’s favorite mug goes missing from set, production can simply buy another one and keep shooting. A gun goes missing and a whole mess of laws spring into effect. Guns are not toys and they must be taken seriously at all times.
To take these deadly weapons seriously means hiring a trained, professional armorer. Though membership is not required, many professional armorers are members of the American Entertainment Armories Association. This trade group oversees the business of production armories and armorers. Regardless of their affiliations, weapons masters are required to follow all state and federal laws and hold proper operating permits.
There is not currently a designated training course or a certification process for weapons masters. Nor is there a union that could provide apprenticeships that lead to mastery. The title of weapons master can be self-applied, however, many armorers come from the ranks of the U.S. military.
Armorers regulate the use of firearms on set, increase safety, and keep every weapon used during production in one, safe location. Weapons only leave the armory when needed on set and are only to be touched by a select few, all of whom receive prior authorization to handle the weapon.
Usually this list of approved handlers is limited to the weapons master, the actor using the weapon, and the First AD.
There was no weapons master on the set of “The Captive.” According to DeMille’s own account of events, he gave the order to reload – if he gave it at all – to the extras themselves. This tells us that there was no armorer on set.
No safe set – no set with a trained weapons master – allows the actors to reload their own weapons.
To increase safety, we must not think of weapons as just another prop. Weapons masters, or armorers, are a vital safety step when handling firearms on filmsets.
Now let’s look at what exactly a “blank” is and how dangerous they are.
Most people who lack experience with production weapons tend to think of blanks as harmless, dummy bullets that can simply be loaded into a normal gun instead of live rounds. That is far from the truth.
Blanks are, in fact, quite dangerous on their own. They are actually the same as live rounds only minus the projectiles, a.k.a. the bullets. Yes, the bullet is only one component to a cartridge, or round.
The above image [“Diagram of a typical cartridge” by Glrx – CC BY-SA 3.0] shows how the bullet (1) is only one aspect of the cartridge. There is the casing (2), the gunpowder (3), rim (4), and primer (5). A round is much more than a bullet. Before we look at blanks, let’s review how a gun fires.
The firing pin of the gun hits the primer, which is designed to create a small explosion. The small explosion from the primer ignites the gunpowder, creating a much larger, more powerful explosion. This fires the bullet from the casing, down the barrel of the gun, and toward its intended target.
A blank works exactly like that except for the part where the bullet fires out of the barrel. Instead, the explosion itself comes out of the barrel. Without the bullet there to turn the force of the explosion into kinetic energy, the fire and powder from the explosion shoot out from the gun barrel. Sometimes they bring shards of the cartridge with them. This makes a gun loaded with blanks very dangerous.
In fact, Jon-Erik Hexum died from a blank on the set of the television show “Cover Up.” Bored between takes, Hexum picked up a “prop gun” loaded with blanks, and – just joking – held it to his temple and pulled the trigger. The force of the gases shooting from the barrel shattered his skull and sent pieces of it ripping through his brain. He died soon thereafter. It was 1984 and Hexum was 26 years old.
In most cases, blanks are crimped cartridges. So where the bullet would be, someone has simply bent the metal around the gunpowder. This is why blanks are so dangerous. To properly use a blank, you need to modify the gun.
There are several ways to modify a gun to shoot blanks and these modification depend on how the gun cycles – or how it ejects the now-empty cartridge and puts a new round in the chamber. The more complex the weapon the more complex the modifications. Six-shooters require very little modification to fire blanks while assault rifles require quite a bit more.
These modifications can also change the size and shape of the muzzle flash (the exploding gases from the gunpowder). Professional armorers can even calibrate the size of the muzzle flash depending on the scene. By changing the amount of gunpowder in the blank and by constricting the gun barrel appropriately, muzzle flashes can go from a few sparks to massive flames.
These calibrations are not only for looks, they are also for safety. When gunfire is performed at a distance, large muzzle flashes can be safe. But the closer the shooter gets to their target, the smaller the muzzle flash must become. When a shooter is at close-range, there should be no muzzle flash at all.
In fact, most weapons safety professionals would recommend that the gun not even fire at close-range to ensure that the sound doesn’t cause damage either. Close-range gunfire is best handled in post, where the sound and the muzzle flash can be added safely.
Regardless of whether or not DeMille gave the order for the extras to reload with blanks, the actors were all far too close to one another for blanks to be used safely.
Today, the entertainment unions have guidelines that help to establish additional levels of safety.
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG, now SAG-AFTRA) formed in part because of firearm safety issues. James Cagney, one of the founding members of SAG, was almost killed on the set of 1931’s “Taxi” when live ammo nearly hit him.
It was common practice in early Hollywood to shoot bullets at actors. Snipers, marksman, and sharpshooters were hired to hit targets near actors because squibs had not been invented yet.
When a production wanted it to look like bullet hit a wall, they had to fire real bullets at that wall. In this context, DeMille’s actions on the set of “The Captive” – while insane-seeming to us – were not out of the ordinary at all in 1915.
SAG-AFTRA dedicates an entire section of its safety guidelines to firearms. In it, the union states, among many other stipulations, that actors should assume all weapons are loaded and dangerous at all times, and that at no point should an actor point a gun at anyone, including oneself. These two safety regulations could prevent most on-set firearm accidents, and likely most firearm accidents period.
Needless to say, DeMille had none of these safety precautions, experts, or special weaponry on the set of “The Captive” that day. Let’s look at some specific points of safety when dealing with weapons on set that could have saved the life of an extra in 1915.
Rules To Live By
At Epitome Risk we have developed internal guidelines that we rely on during projects we are hired to risk manage. We want to share a few of them with you today:
- There Is No Such Thing as a Prop Gun: When dealing with firearms it is best to not even refer to them or think of them as prop guns. We can simply call them “guns.” By thinking of them only as “guns” and referring to them that way, we establish the proper relationship with the weapon. There are no prop guns, only guns.
- Establish Chain of Custody: At no time should a weapon change hands without someone documenting the transfer. This single additional step – documenting when someone new touches the weapon – will keep people from unnecessarily touching weapons. It will also establish a chain of custody which is vital should an accident occur.
- No Live Rounds Ever: There should never be live rounds on a film set. EVER. No shot, no scene, no location is ever important enough or safe enough to justify using live rounds. While dummy rounds – which are inert rounds, not the same as blanks – can be made from live rounds by removing the bullet, emptying out the gunpowder, igniting the primer, and then putting the bullet back in the cartridge, we should never take these steps on a film set. Live rounds should never even be purchased by production. Union guidelines allow for special circumstances where live ammunition can still be used, but we feel that no circumstances are special enough for the added risks.
- Avoid Operational Weapons at All Costs: The default choice should always be a non-functional weapon, or what are known in the industry as “holster stuffers.” We encourage all our productions to think twice about using operational weapons, even ones designed to fire only blanks. By requesting productions to provide additional justification for operational weaponry, we help to keep their usage rates lower on our productions. This makes the sets safer, it saves money, and it doesn’t have to impact the visual style of the film. If it doesn’t have to be a functional gun, reach for a holster stuffer.
- Distance Is Your Best Friend: When using blanks on a filmset, it is imperative that we remember to maximize the distance between the actor firing the weapon and anyone else on set. In many cases, this means using remote cameras or setting up the shot before clearing the set. Blanks are very dangerous. In fact, given the pervasive misconception that blanks are safe, they might actually be more dangerous than live rounds because people tend not to treat them with the same respect. Which is why our first rule exists: there is no such thing as a prop gun.
These are only a few of our firearm safety rules but they provide a great foundational understanding of the mindset required to maximize on-set safety when guns are present.
Hollywood’s obsession with real weapons goes back to the very beginning of the movie business. The twin factors of price and payoff consistently direct filmmakers toward unsafe weapons in their productions. Operational weapons capable of firing live rounds are, sadly, less expensive than guns designed by professionals to fire blanks or to not fire at all. Muzzle flashes can be less expensive to create on the day than to recreate in post.
It is possible to have guns in our movies and to do it safely. But we need to hire trained weapons experts and armorers who can calibrate the desired visual effects safely. It requires that we establish an uninterrupted chain of custody. Then we must follow union rules and only allow weapons to be loaded and unloaded by the weapons experts on set, never by the actors.
Most importantly of all, gun safety demands that we never, ever have live rounds anywhere near the set and that we treat every single weapon as if it could kill someone. Because, in the wrong hands, in the wrong circumstances, they very likely could.
The on-set death put production of “The Captive” behind schedule. The victim’s fellow actors were not allowed to attend the funeral because they were required to finish the picture.
Scott Eyman in his book “Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille” identifies the actor killed in “The Captive” as Bob Fleming while most other accounts identify him as Charles Chandler. While his name is disputed, the fact that he died instantly is not.
According to DeMille’s autobiography, the dead man’s widow was kept on the studio payroll for years after the incident.
Sweet was traumatized by what she saw that day. Her recollection involves seeing the man’s brains on the ground. She never forgave DeMille for what happened.
DeMille was affected by this incident too. In his autobiography, he says of the incident, “I wonder if [the widow’s] suffering was any greater than that of the man who carried with him to his own grave the memory of having taken, however accidentally, a human life.” We think that DeMille is likely referring to himself here in addition to the extra whose gun went off that day.
DeMille kept a private collection of all his movies. When he died, and his vault was inventoried, only a few of his films were absent. “The Captive” was one of them.
Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible.
Major Sources and Further Reading:
- Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen by William Drew
- Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman
- The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille by Cecil B. DeMille
- Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by Robert S. Birchard
- Fade To Black: A Book Of Movie Obituaries by Paul Donnelley
- SAG-AFTRA Safety Bulletins
- Forgotten Weaponry’s interview with professional armorer Charlie Taylor
- 6 Terrifying Ways Films Used To Achieve Special Effects by E.M. Caris for Cracked
- The Captive (1915) A Silent Film Review by Movies Silently
- Locked and Loaded: The Gun Industry’s Lucrative Relationship with Hollywood by Gary Baum & Scott Johnson for The Hollywood Reporter