After watching a movie featuring animals in peril, we are always comforted by the message in the credits that none were harmed during filming. However, some of these animals do suffer tragedies on set. Much of the issue stems from the organization tapped to monitor the action, the non-profit American Humane Association (AHA). Most of the AHA’s budget is derived directly from the film industry itself. The conflict of interest is clear—it would be like your boss paying you to tattle on him and get him fired.
10 Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is director Francis Ford Coppola’s love letter to violence, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. This grim vision of the Vietnam War sees a special forces operative sent into the jungle to eliminate a rogue agent named Kurtz. After a brutal journey, the op murders Kurtz with a machete. This attack is interspersed with footage of a water buffalo being ceremonially slaughtered (skip to 2:20 in the video above).
The animal in question was reportedly slated to be slaughtered by the local Ifugao tribe anyway, but this does not make the scene any less horrifying to watch. The movie, which was filmed in the Philippines, was not monitored by the American Humane Association and, not surprisingly, it earned an “unacceptable” rating by the group.
9 The Grey
2011’s The Grey is a bleak psychological thriller which features Liam Neeson leading a group of oil drillers as they flee from killer wolves in Alaska. Groups like PETA were already angered by the film’s disturbing portrayal of wolves—populations of which have only recently begun to rebound off the endangered species list in the US—when it was discovered that the production actually bought four wolf carcasses from a trapper. Two of the corpses were used as props for the film. The other two were actually cooked and eaten by members of the cast.
This bizarre repast was arranged because of a scene in the film where the men manage to kill and roast one of their attackers. When asked to describe the taste of the wolf meat, Neeson claimed, “It was very gamey. But I’m Irish, so I’m used to odd stews. I can take it. Just throw a lot of carrots and onions in there and I’ll call it dinner.” Talk about method acting.
8 The Adventures Of Milo And Otis
The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a beloved children’s movie from Japan featuring a kitten and a pug puppy. The film was released to Japanese audiences in 1986, becoming the year’s biggest hit in that country. Australian animal rights organizations, which had received horrifying reports from the set, urged a boycott on the film. They claimed that dozens of cats were killed during the shoot and that a producer actually broke a kitten’s paw to make it appear clumsy.
Investigations by several groups, including the American Humane Society, were unable to find irrefutable evidence of cruelty. However, should you choose to revisit this childhood classic, you’ll notice certain scenes, like a fight between a bear and a pug or a kitten being thrown into the ocean, which could never have been made without abuse.
7 The Charge Of The Light Brigade
The Charge of the Light Brigade is a 1936 film starring Hollywood leading man Errol Flynn. It details a real-life disastrous cavalry charge during the Crimean War between Russia and an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey). The climax of the film takes place at the Battle of Balaclava, a deadly rout for British forces.
To duplicate the illusion of horses toppling after being fired upon, the battlefield set was rigged with trip wires (5:24 in the above clip). At least two dozen horses were killed outright or had to be euthanized shortly afterward, their legs hopelessly splintered. A stuntman also died during this sequence. In the wake of this bloodbath, Congress intervened, and several laws were put in place to determine how animals were used in film, including an explicit ban on trip wires.
6 Life Of Pi
Life of Pi is a visually stunning adventure drama revolving around an Indian boy named Pi who is stranded aboard a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. His plight is enormously complicated by the fact that the boat is shared by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who had belonged to Pi’s family’s zoo. Most of the film’s effects were created by virtue of computer generated imagery, including the Richard Parker scenes, but some were shot with a real tiger named King. While shooting a sequence that involved King swimming in a water tank, something went horribly wrong, and the tiger nearly died before his handler managed to pull him to safety. Luckily, this story has a happy ending, but it is included due to the controversy it generated.
The water tank scene, shot in Taiwan, was presided over by an American Humane Association representative named Gina Johnson. Despite the tiger’s brush with death, Johnson reported that all was well on the set of Pi. A leaked email she sent to a colleague had this to say about the incident: “This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned. I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION THIS TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! Have downplayed the f—k out of it.” Worse still, Johnson was revealed to have romantic ties with a production executive for the movie. In the wake of this news becoming public in November 2013, Johnson resigned from her job with the AHA.
5 Snow Buddies
Like many of the movies on this list, Snow Buddies is an incredibly saccharine venture concerning a band of golden retriever puppies who are stranded in Alaska and become sled dogs. As puppies tend to grow incredibly fast, production studio Disney acquired many to fill the necessary roles. Unfortunately, it appears that several puppies were brought onto the set before growing old enough to be separated from their mothers—at approximately six weeks instead of the compulsory eight.
These pups, which were not properly inoculated, wreaked havoc on the set—spreading diseases like parvovirus, giardia, and coccidia parasites. Many of the involved dogs became sick, over a dozen requiring veterinary treatment. Five puppies eventually died.
Manderlay is a grim tale of slavery persisting well into the 20th century in America. As it takes place on a plantation, it naturally features animals. One scene was to feature a donkey being butchered. When attempts to use a fake donkey fell flat, director Lars Von Trier procured a donkey that was already scheduled to be slaughtered and gave it a lethal injection so that its corpse could be used in the movie.
In response, actor John C. Reilly (best known for appearing with Will Ferrell in slapstick comedies) quit his role in the film. Von Trier eventually cut the donkey scene from the movie out of concern that the scandal would destroy his project, but went on to claim that the animal’s fate would have been far worse if he hadn’t purchased it.
3 Speed Racer
Speed Racer is a live action adaptation of the Japanese cartoon series, helmed by the Wachowskis (who directed the Matrix series). This is another one of the few films that the AHA refused to endorse, calling it “unacceptable.” This rating stemmed from an incident where one of the chimpanzees portraying the character of “Chim-Chim” bit an actor without provocation and was allegedly beaten in response.
Later on in the production, a chimp was struck out of frustration by a trainer while rehearsing. This occurred in front of an AHA monitor and was labeled a clear violation of AHA guidelines, which forbids physically punishing animals in favor of positive reinforcement methods. The monitor stopped the training session immediately and reported the incident to producers. Fortunately, the chimp was uninjured.
1925’s Ben-Hur is the tale of an enslaved Jewish prince and his quest for revenge during Roman times. Despite featuring Jesus Christ as a character, Ben-Hur set the standard for animal cruelty in a film. Over 100 horses apparently gave their lives to complete the climactic chariot race scene, which dragged on for weeks under the hot California sun. Injured animals were reportedly shown little mercy. According to Francis X. Bushman, who played Messala (Ben-Hur’s opponent in the race), “If it limped, they shot it.” Despite being the most expensive silent film ever made at $3.9 million, Ben-Hur was a box office bomb.
1 Heaven’s Gate
In 1978, director Michael Cimino released The Deer Hunter, earning Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. Then he steered his career catastrophically into the toilet. His next movie, Heaven’s Gate, a drama centered around the conflict between land barons and immigrants in the Old West, was a ghastly disaster. A critical and financial failure (some claim that it’s the worst movie ever made), Heaven’s Gate also generated extreme controversy for the treatment of animals on the set.
The AHA was actually barred from the set of this film, and for good reason: The cruelty directed at the animals was unimaginable. Rumors from the set indicated that cows were cut to provide “fake” blood for the actors. During a battle scene, four horses were apparently killed, including one which was blown up with dynamite. Real cockfights were staged, and cattle were gutted to use their entrails as props. A lawsuit by one of the owners of a horse abused on the set settled for an undisclosed amount out of court. In the wake of this scandal, the Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers passed a referendum that would require the AHA to be on set for all future shoots.