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RISKY BUSINESS: Noah’s Ark
How “Noah’s Ark” Demonstrates the Need for Risk Management on Film & Television Productions
1928’s “Noah’s Ark” changed Hollywood forever. Some films achieve such important status because of their innovations and others for their indelible mark on American culture. The legacy of “Noah’s Ark” is darker. This is the film that forced the industry to establish stunt safety standards because of the injuries and deaths on set.
Hollywood has always been a place – and an industry – devoted to spectacle. Those roots go all the way back to the silent film era. As the poster above proudly states, “Noah’s Ark” is meant to be “The Spectacle for the Ages!” In other promotional materials, the copy boasts that this film was meant to “top any film ever made!”
Spectacle is a risky pursuit that often leads to one-upmanship and that is exactly what happened on the set of “Noah’s Ark.” The man to beat in those days was Cecil B. DeMille and “Noah’s Ark” writer/producer Darryl F. Zanuck set out to do just that.
Directed by Michael Curtis, 1928’s “Noah’s Ark” stars Dolores Costello and George O’Brien. Despite what the title might suggest, nearly two-thirds of the movie takes place during World War One. The film’s conceit is parallel love stories across time. As two people fall for each other during the “war to end all wars,” the same two find love during the “flood that destroyed the world.”
That flood caused most of the issues on this film. Designed for spectacle, the flood that was supposed to destroy the world in the story caused pain, suffering, and death in real life.
The issues present in this ninety-five-year-old film are still present today. No matter the era, the drive to spectacle and the push to out-do the competition create safety issues. Let’s take a look at The Great Flood.
The ‘Great’ Flood
Director Michael Curtis and writer/producer Darryl Zanuck wanted real reactions. They wanted real desperation. They wanted a real flood, so they dumped 600,000 gallons of water (or 15,000 tons) on thousands of extras without informing the extras that this was about to happen. Without checking to see if they could swim. Without warning at all.
The crew, on the other hand, was told what was going to happen. They needed to be able to light it correctly and capture it on film. When cinematographer Hal Mohr learned of the plan, he objected, saying, “Jesus, what are you going to do about the extras?”
Curtis is said to have replied, “Oh, they’re going to have to take their chances.”
When Curtis and Zanuck ignored Mohr’s pleas for safety, Mohr walked off set; wanting no part of what was to come.
What came was even worse than Hal Mohr predicted:
- The monumental force of the crashing water’s weight slammed extras into the concrete floors and sets.
- Hundreds of extras were seriously injured and many more nearly drowned.
- One extra had to have his leg amputated.
- Star Dolores Costello contracted pneumonia and almost drowned.
- Star George O’Brien lost several toenails.
- Actor Guinn “Big Boy” Williams broke two ribs.
- Thirty-five ambulances were called to set to deal with all the wounded.
- According to several accounts, three people died in the flood.
This tragedy could have been avoided. No one should ever die making a movie. No one should get a leg cut off because of a film. No one should be slammed into concrete, get pneumonia, or drown because of a motion picture. Moviemaking is a risky business, but it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s look at how professional risk management could have made this scene safer.
Three Rules for Safety
“Noah’s Ark” is nearly one-hundred-years-old. So much has changed in this industry in the last century. Talkies arrived, color was introduced, television invented, digital photography, computer generated effects, the internet, and streaming have all dramatically altered the entertainment industry since “Noah’s Ark” premiered.
There are several aspects, however, that haven’t changed at all: the devotion to spectacle, the drive for one-upmanship, and the desire for “realness.” Our goal in this article is not to smugly finger-wave at a silent-era film. People died; many more nearly drown. Their friends and family had to deal with the aftermath of the decisions made on this set. We do not want to diminish what they experienced, even if it was so very long ago.
We simply want to highlight how the process Curtis and company went through nearly a century ago is strikingly similar to the processes we encounter on sets today. By looking at a classic, large-scale example like “Noah’s Ark,” we can better understand contemporary on-set safety issues and the need for risk management on productions.
We would like to touch on three rules for safety that save lives on any set, in any era, and could have protected everyone on “Noah’s Ark:”
- No Surprises
- Take walk-offs seriously
- Trust actors to act
Rule #1: No Surprises
One of the first steps in any safety protocol is to get everyone on the same page. Without this step, we introduce unnecessary risk into any endeavor. A vital part of on-set safety is to ensure that the cast and the crew know exactly what is going to happen in the scene. From action to cut – on every take – there should be no surprises.
To make sets safer, we highly recommend on-boarding risk managers during pre-production so that skilled sets of eyes can look at the script and identify safety issues before production begins. Once the risks have been identified, we must prepare everyone involved.
The most effective way to achieve this goal is to follow these steps:
- Plan: Safety starts with a good plan. To properly plan, we must bring in Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with knowledge specific to the risks present in each scene. The flood scene would likely require several SMEs: lifeguards, rescue swimmers, scuba teams, and stunt safety experts. A good plan also means breaking the scene into components so that the large flood is not one giant moment but several smaller, safer moments. Finally, a good plan would rely on all the tricks available to us at the time of shooting. In 1928, that would mean miniatures, matte paintings, and forced perspective (all things used in other scenes of “Noah’s Ark.”)
- Communicate: Once the plan is in place, we must communicate it clearly to everyone involved. This step was noticeably absent from the flood scene in “Noah’s Ark.” Curtis and company refused to communicate the plan to the actors/extras and disaster followed.
- Equip: It is not enough to make sure that everyone knows what is going to happen. We must give our teams the equipment and training necessary to successfully perform the scene as planned. In the case of “Noah’s Ark,” this would mean ensuring that everyone could swim, that the actors were properly padded, that the water was not too cold, that the water was not too much too fast, that the set could withstand the deluge. We would also want to equip the set with safety divers, armed with oxygen tanks, and lifeguards ready to rescue people at a moment’s notice. We would also want to establish safe areas on the set that are easily accessible and beyond the reach of the water so that in an emergency people know where to go to escape the water.
- Rehearse: Practice is vital to safety, especially on large, dangerous scenes like this one. Before the first ounce of water drips on set, we would want to make sure that we had safety signals worked out so that people in need of assistance could easily and effectively communicate their needs to our experts, safety divers, and lifeguards. We advise all our productions to start with a quarter-speed walk-through of a stunt and slowly work their way to half-speed, then three-quarter-speed, and finally to full speed. And in the case of a flood scene like this, we’d advise working up to full speed before we ever introduce the water. We would also want to rehearse “bad takes” where things go wrong so that everyone is familiar with all the appropriate safety procedures before we shoot the scene.
- Execute: Once SMEs have help to create a plan that splits the scene into safer segments and relies on special effects to increase safety, and we have clearly communicated that plan to all involved, equipped and trained the participants for success, and rehearsed the scene numerous times, then – and only then – is it time to shoot the scene. We should execute the scene according to our plans and our rehearsals and refrain from springing additional elements on the cast and crew.
This process might seem long and involved. That’s because it is. The goal of any production must be to return each member of the cast and crew to their non-working lives in the exact same condition they were in when production began.
The above process not only helps to eliminate unnecessary risks, but it also instills the cast and crew with the necessary sense of seriousness and importance that a scene like this requires. When we “just roll” on risky scenes like global floods, we encourage the wrong attitude on our productions. Safety takes time and care to achieve.
Rule #2: Take Walk-Offs Seriously
There are so few options available to cast and crew on an unsafe production. They can voice their concerns. They can call their union reps (assuming it is a union-shoot). If those two options fail, then the only recourse left is to walk off set.
Cinematographer Hal Mohr voiced his concerns to the director and producer of “Noah’s Ark” and he lacked any union support. While the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) was founded in 1918 – ten years prior to “Noah’s Ark” – ASC is neither a guild nor a union.
In 1928, when “Noah’s Ark” was filmed, the international cinematographer’s union (known today as IATSE Local 600) was in its infancy, existing only in New York City (then known as Local 644). The Los Angeles version of this union (Local 659) wasn’t formed until after “Noah’s Ark” and Hollywood didn’t become a union town until 1930’s.
So, once his protests were ignored, Hal Mohr had no other option but to walk off the set.
Far too often, productions get annoyed and attempt to push on when cast or crew walk off set. This is a huge mistake. Walk-offs should be taken seriously. They are a loud siren signaling that the production needs to re-evaluate safety.
The first step in the re-evaluation process is simple: pause. When a cast or crew member walks off set in protest of unsafe working conditions, everyone and everything should stop.
Based on our research and experience, we can safely say that people don’t want to walk off set. They make this choice only after having exhausted their other options. This is their last resort, and it is a serious one.
Cast and crew know that this decision can jeopardize their future employment prospects and, sadly, it is often the case that taking safety seriously can lead to a lack of work for cast and crew members. They are willing to risk their livelihoods in a last-ditch attempt to keep people safe.
We must honor this choice, listen to their issues, and work to address them. Once we have taken those steps, we must restart the safety steps from Rule #1 above and that means we re-plan, re-communicate, re-equip, re-rehearse, and re-execute.
If Michael Curtis and company had stopped when Hal Mohr walked off the production, they could have saved lives. Instead, they replaced him with Barney McGill.
Rule #3: Trust Actors to Act
Film is a medium of moments. Unlike theatre, where performances must be recreated night after night for months on end, movies only require that we get it right one time. This immediacy has led many in the industry – for over a century now – to play tricks on their actors – and put their lives at risk – in attempts to generate the performances they desire. This is dangerous.
In the case of “Noah’s Ark,” this mindset led to injuries, amputations, pneumonia, and deaths.
Safety requires us to remember that movies are make-believe. They are audio-visual stories. Actors play characters in an imagined scenario with imagined stakes, consequences, and resolutions. We place lights and cameras to properly capture this make-believe. We use microphones to record pre-written dialog. Nothing about this is “real.”
And yet, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, directors, producers – and even actors – continue to strive for “realness.” From the use of live birds to choking actors on camera, this ethos has never left the industry. It always leads to increased risks and often results in injury and death.
To avoid this, we must trust our actors to act. We must pay more attention during the casting process to ensure that we have picked people capable of performing the scenes we know they must perform. We must communicate to our actors clearly and effectively.
Rule number one is no surprises. Trusting our actors to act goes hand in glove with rule number one. Part of no surprises is clear and effective communication. This must mean telling our actors what we expect from them in a scene and what will happen during the scene.
Michael Curtis and company should have trusted that the actors they hired to play the drowning citizens were capable of pretending to drown. There is never a need to capture real drowning on camera. These decisions can unwittingly turn a movie into a snuff-film.
Spend any time in Hollywood and you will quickly hear someone tell you some version of this adage: “Be careful, you never know who someone will become in this industry.” Fortunes change seemingly overnight in Tinseltown and one day your waiter could be your director, a taxi driver a producer, that extra a movie star.
This was certainly the case during the great flood in 1928’s “Noah’s Ark.” Struggling for air and survival amongst the thousands of extras, was a then-unknown actor named Marion Robert Morrison who managed not to drown in the scene. Two years later, he would get his first credited feature film role in “The Big Trail” under the stage name John Wayne.
Professional risk management could have saved lives on the set of 1928’s “Noah’s Ark.” A safer production begins by eliminating surprises. This involves a clear, multi-part plan effectively communicated to everyone involved, equipping and training personnel for success, and rehearsing the scene slowly and carefully before finally executing the required shots.
By honoring the commitment involved in a walk-off and trusting our actors to act, we can further increase set safety and avoid the injuries and deaths that occurred nearly a hundred years ago on the set of “Noah’s Ark.”
Despite industry-wide recognition of safety issues on this set, neither Darryl Zanuck nor Michael Curtis were ever charged with a crime or reprimanded in any way. Two years later, Zanuck formed Twentieth Century Films (later 20th Century Fox, and today 20th Century Films) and produced such bona fide classics as “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The King and I,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “All About Eve,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Curtis went on to have a successful directing career whose major contribution to the history of cinema is one of the greatest films ever made: “Casablanca.”
The tragedy of “Noah’s Ark” did lead to change in Hollywood, namely to the establishment of stunt and safety protocols. Those protocols remained practically untouched until the 1980s and that was the last time they were significantly changed. Though today, many in Hollywood are clamoring for updates.
Join us next week when we look at the risky business of what many believe is the greatest movie ever made, “Citizen Kane.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
Sources and Further Reading:
- The Movie Doctors by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode.
- ‘No One Should Be Killed On Set’: Tragic History Of Fatalities During Filming by Catherine Shoard for The Guardian, 2021.
- 12 People Who Totally Broke The Law To Make Great Movies by Simon Gallagher for WhatCulture, 2015.
- The 1928 Bible Film That Allegedly Killed 3 People And Injured Countless Others by Lorenzo Tanos for Grunge, 2021.
- Noah’s Ark (1928): Fake Flood, Real Deaths by Gary Cahall for Movie Fanfare, 2014.
- April Showers: Noah’s Ark (1928) by Samantha Glasser for The Columbus Moving Picture Show, 2022.
- Hollywood’s Labor Force Has Always Had to Fight for Workers’ Rights by Kim Kelly for Teen Vogue, 2019.
- The gig economy is a disaster for workers. Hollywood’s unions can help them learn to fight back by W. Harry Fortuna for Quartz, 2017.