Say you’re a director of a big Hollywood film in 1928. It’s about the bible story, Noah’s Ark. You know, the one with the big flood that drowns everyone in the world because God was feeling cranky that day (well except two of every creature, that way life can go on via loads of inbreeding. It was the best way to produce a society of people too question this stuff). How would you go about creating that giant flood for the film? After Effects isn’t going to be created for quite sometime, so using computers isn’t an option. You could set up some miniatures in a bathtub and turn on the shower, but that’s not epic enough. Why not actually just flood your set? People haven’t figured out water conservation yet, so who’s going to question it?
The executives of the film thought this was a great idea. The camera man disagreed, and quit in protest after his warnings of potential problems went ignored. This was a epic flood and needed an epic stunt to go along with it, so the Hollywood executives proceeded.
On the day of filming the scene, somewhere between 600,000 and 3.6 million gallons of water (there seems to be varying figures on this) was dumped onto the set filled with unprepared extras. Panic filled the set as extras desperately tried to escape, many broke bones, one poor guy lost his leg, and 3 drowned. 35 ambulances were dispersed to the scene to treat the wounded.
Among those extras who survived was a young John Wayne, who I imagine was probably so traumatized by almost drowning he spent the rest of life filming westerns in the desert, far from any substantial amount of water.
The next year, in response, safety regulations were created to avoid this happening again. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time a crazed director trying to get the perfect shot wound up killing actors (maybe I’ll talk about some of those one day, but do a search on the Twilight Zone movie if you need faster gratification).
Was it all worth the death to get the shot? Well, you can watch the video of the flood below and judge for yourself. Financially it did alright. The film cost $1.5 million in 1928 to make (adjusting for inflation, that’s about 22.7 million, which isn’t bad for a big epic movie). It didn’t do well locally, but did better worldwide where is eventually made a profit, showing that the overseas market was important even almost 100 years ago.