5 real examples of deliberate sabotage on the set of movies

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Sometimes things go wrong on a movie set and it’s an accident – but sometimes, there are incidents, such as this little lot, where it’s quite the opposite.

Movie productions tend to be frantic even at the best of times, with thousands of decisions made by people over the course of a production, each lightly changing the end result. Sometimes, of course, accidents happen, that can derail a production to a certain degree. But other times, there are stories of people deliberately getting up to no good. Here are a few tales of where light-hearted and, er, ‘less light-hearted’ moments caused headaches…

 Dr Dolittle

A delightful book about the changing times in Hollywood in the 1960s is Mark Harris’ Scenes From A Revolution. It follows the five Academy Award Best Picture nominees from 1968, and tells the story of how each made it through the studio system.

It was a then-revolutionary selection. Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat Of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner were all up for the top gong. Alongside them, one solitary traditional piece of studio fodder, the Rex Harrison-headlined take on Dr Dolittle. And it’s whilst reading Harris’ book that I first became aware of now-legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ exploits on the set of the film.

It would be fair to say that Fiennes (not pictured) was one of those not impressed by the production moving to the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe. 20th Century Fox had pretty much taken over the place for the shoot of the movie, and as Fiennes would recall to Forces.net, “this involved turning the stream into a dirty great lake with a 20-foot concrete dam, ruining the village”.

Fiennes thus took a call from an old friend, and the two conspired to do something. The two decided to try and destroy the dam, and in doing so raise publicity for how the village was being treated.

The-then 22-year old Fiennes and his colleague got a can of gasoline and trying to set fire to an outhouse, than in turn would blow up the dam. The attempt, though, was interrupted and Fiennes was duly arrested. His was sentenced to six months probation after a brief stint in Chippenham prison.  He would ultimately meet the judge to ask why he’d not been locked up. He was told that “if we had done that one year later, he would have had to have given us seven years minimum”.

The attempted sabotage was unsuccessful, and the film’s production continued. Fiennes went on to have quite a career…


The arduous shoot of James Cameron’s Titanic is very much the stuff of movie legend. But in particular, there’s the story of an assumed angry crew member who exacted a dangerous revenge on the production.

Shooting was winding down for the Canadian segment of the production in Nova Scotia, where contemporary scenes for the movie were being shot. Rebecca Keegan details what happens next in her book The Futurist. She tells the story of how on the last day of shooting there, the caterers laid on a bowl of mussel chowder for the cast and crew. They duly tucked in.

It didn’t take long for Cameron to feel “woozy”. A female stand-in on the set collapsed. Cameron called for a medicine called ipecac, thinking if he threw up fast he’d not have to stop work for the day. He duly vomited, but when he got back to the set, it was pretty barren.

In the end, the crew had been gathered in the dining room to try and work out who felt ill and who didn’t. Most did, and in the end, 75 members of the Titanic cast and crew were taken to a small local hospital. A hospital with just one nurse and one doctor.

It turned out what had happened was that a pound of PCP had been put in the chowder. Nobody was ever caught, nor did they admit responsibility. The working theory remains that it was a fired member of the crew exacting some retribution.

The Godfather

The multi-Oscar winning mob classic The Godfather notoriously was in danger of falling on the wrong side of certain mobsters fearing the light of publicity. One of those was Joseph Colombo, known to be the boss of the Colombo crime family in New York (one of the infamous five families of the city at the time).

Protests against the production didn’t work, and thus unnamed mob enforcers stepped up their campaign to stop the film. One of its producers, Al Ruddy, was followed, and his car smashed up. He was left a threatening note, and then-Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans received phone calls, er, politely suggesting he might like to leave New York.

Then the more overt sabotage started. Film equipment mysteriously disappeared, and various locations were suddenly denied to the film. The production was going to have real problems.

Paramount thus needed drastic action, and a meeting was called with Colombo and the studio. As it turned out, Colombo just wanted one thing: for the word ‘mafia’ to be removed from the screenplay. Turns out that in the draft they were up to, it appeared just once. The deal was taken, and production after that was enthusiastically supported.

Ghost In The Noonday Sun

An incredible story, this. The Peter Sellers-headlined Ghost In The Noonday Sun was earmarked as a $2m comedy in the world of 17th century pirates. Spike Milligan was to be Sellers’ co-star, and Peter Medak – who would go on to helm Let Him Have It and The Krays – was to direct. The cast and crew headed off to the Cyprus location to start filming.

The problem with this one, though, was that Sellers quickly lost confidence in the movie at a very difficult time in his life. And that’s notwithstanding the fact that Sellers by reputation wasn’t always the easiest person to deal with.

In the case of this movie, he was its biggest problem. At one stage, so keen was he to escape the set for a lunch with Princess Margaret, he faked a heart attack. This moment of self-sabotage got him out of filming for a little while.

He then left the country under the cover of that to meet his appointment.  By then, Sellers had fired the producers on day one.

The movie would ultimately be denied a cinema release, getting an outing on video many years later. The troubled film’s story is covered in this piece over at Chortle.

Red Dawn

Here’s a light-hearted example to end on. The late Patrick Swayze penned a terrific memoir, and in it, he tells the story of being on the set of a character such as writer/director John Milius. It was a testosterone-fuelled set, with high jinks and no shortage of practical jokes.

Swayze decided to play one. He got some of the M60 charges – “one-eighth sticks of dynamite”, he explained – and he rigged the director’s toilet with them. Swayze snuck into Milius’ trailer, and “I packed them into a steel tube to direct the force, so they wouldn’t blow shrapnel everywhere, and taped them under his toilet”.

When Milius then retreated to his space to do one of the three things people tend to do on the toilet, Swayze detonated the charges. “He’d barely gotten the words ‘Swayze, you son of a—’ out of his mouth when I set off a second round of explosives, blowing two garbage cans sky-high and scaring the s**t out of him”, Swayze wrote.

Not that Milius ultimately minded. This was just the kind of stuff he enjoyed, and as Swayze wrote, “day to day, he never knew what might be coming at him – and he loved it”.

Lead image: BigStock

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