1. “Electrocuting An Elephant” (1903)
This list is meant not as a grim catalog of animal abuse for its own sake, but as a list of accidental or deliberate harm done to animals in the process of creating filmed entertainment. So we largely excluded cases where animal killings were captured in documentary films, like Roger & Me or The Cove. But Thomas Edison’s 1903 short “Electrocuting An Elephant” is worth mentioning, since it chronicles an animal death at least partly orchestrated for the sake of a paying audience. Topsy was a circus elephant that worked on Coney Island’s Luna Park. After being deemed a threat to people due to a few attacks, Topsy was sentenced to death by hanging. (The attacks seemed at least a bit retaliatory, since one was prompted by one of Topsy’s trainers trying to feed her a lit cigarette.) Edison intervened, suggesting electrocution instead. Though electrocution was arguably more “humane” (and cinematic), Edison’s ulterior motive was to trump up the effectiveness of his own high-voltage direct-current system. “Electrocuting An Elephant” signals a shift in conceptions of mass entertainment at the turn of the last century. Instead of coming out to see elephants perform at the circus, audiences flocked to newfangled touring cinema sideshows to see one die on film over and over.
2. Stagecoach (1939)
Although still remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest stuntmen, doubling for John Wayne throughout the 1930s, Yakima Canutt is also somewhat notorious among animal-rights activists for having invented the glorified trip-wire known as the Running W. In the book Hollywood Hoofbeats: Trails Blazed Across The Silver Screen, Petrine Day Mitchum discusses the horrifyingly simple device in great detail, explaining how “wires attached to the horse’s forelegs were threaded through a ring on the cinch and secured to buried dead weights,” so that “when the horse ran to the end of the wires, his forelegs were yanked out from under him.” The Running W invariably produced a spectacular onscreen effect, as it did in Stagecoach, where the coach drivers are firing their rifles at a group of attacking Indian riders. But numerous horses were killed or crippled by the device, which has since been banned.
3. Ben-Hur (1925)
With their whirling, Batmobile-style wheel-destroyers, the chariot races in 1959’s Ben-Hur still stun audiences 50 years after the fact, but they’re nowhere near as dangerous as the scenes in the 1925 version. Directed by second-unit man B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason—whose nickname derived from his fast shooting methods, which unfortunately included a lax attitude toward on-set safety—the race sequences claimed the lives of a human stuntman and at least five horses. Eason intended to make the races as real as possible, offering a bonus to the winning driver and whipping the crowd of extras into a genuine frenzy, which apparently continued unabated even after some were nearly killed by a flying horseshoe.
4. Jesse James (1939)
Jesse James was one of the biggest hits of 1939, matching the take of Frank Capra’s hit Mr. Smith Goes To Washington the same year. But these days, it’s largely just remembered as the film that got the American Humane Association involved in filmmaking. One of Jesse James’ stunts involved Frank James (Henry Fonda) and his brother Jesse (Tyrone Power) escaping a posse by riding their horses off a tall cliff and into a river. The stunt involved dumping an unwilling horse out of a chute and having a stuntman jump after it. Their fall was shot twice from different angles and cut into the film in sequence, so it would look like both brothers made the dangerous leap. But just one jump was enough to kill the horse. (Accounts vary over whether it drowned because it broke its back in the fall, or because it panicked when it hit the water.) After widespread protests, the Motion Picture Association Of America agreed to let the AHA establish guidelines for the use of animals in films, and oversee filming to ensure compliance. The MPAA was trying to avoid litigation and legislation, but the result was still a stringent set of rules and a set of overseers quick to let the public know if animals were harmed in the course of making a film or TV show.
5. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Director Michael Cimino is notoriously hard on actors, but according to the American Humane Association, that’s nothing compared to how he mistreated the furred and feathered actors in his notorious flop Heaven’s Gate. The AHA, which was pointedly not allowed on set, accused the production of killing at least four horses, bleeding other horses from the neck, disemboweling cows, accidentally blowing up a horse and its rider with dynamite (the rider survived), staging actual cockfights, and decapitating a chicken. It was, in other words, a horror. The AHA picketed screenings of the film, not that audiences needed additional help in avoiding it.
6. “Land Without Bread” (1933)
Though typically paired on video with his experimental classic short “Un Chien Andalou,” Luis Buñuel’s 30-minute documentary “Land Without Bread” may be the more radical film of the two, “Chien”’s sliced-up eyeball notwithstanding. Buñuel’s grim portrait of Las Hurdes, a desperately poor mountainous region in Spain, doubles as a parody of the still-emerging documentary genre, featuring a narrator whose horrifying factoids about the area are delivered in a distinctly dry, condescending tone. Only a decade removed from Nanook Of The North, which staged scenes before such practices became verboten, “Land Without Bread” arranged for the death of two animals. In the film’s most notorious scene, Buñuel shows a goat falling from a cliff to its death; in reality, this demonstration of Las Hurdes’ treacherous landscape was helped along by an off-screen gunshot. Elsewhere, the filmmakers allegedly staged the death of an ailing donkey by smearing it in honey and knocking over two beehives. Buñuel sought to enrage people with his irreverent twist on the documentary—and succeeded in provoking both sides of the political divide, not to mention the Hurdanos. Retroactive animal activists will have to stand in a long line of protestors.
7. Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973)
No major American filmmaker was as ruthlessly devoted to capturing images of great and painful beauty as Sam Peckinpah, even if it meant laying waste to everything around him, including personal relationships, professional attachments, and his own health. In his breakthrough Western, The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah hinted at what was to come by opening with a scene that showed laughing children torturing a scorpion by dropping it into an anthill, then setting it on fire. Trying to top himself four years later, Peckinpah opened the counterculture Western Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid with Billy and his friends taking target practice by blowing the heads off live chickens buried up to their necks in the dirt. Unnerving as this sight is, he was prepared to go farther. According to Peckinpah biographer Marshall Fine, the director, looking for something more spectacular than he could achieve through trip-wire effects, was eager to fell a horse on-camera by having someone shoot it through the neck while it was being ridden at full gallop. The rider objected, however, and the stuntman talked Peckinpah out of it—not by appealing to his softer side, but by pretending that he’d seen a horse shot dead for a similar stunt, and it actually didn’t look so hot.
8. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
With Cannibal Holocaust, Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato set out to make something totally shocking. And it worked. The film follows a documentary crew who go missing in the Amazon while investigating the cultures of some indigenous tribes. A precursor to found-footage horror flicks like The Blair Witch Project and rec., Cannibal Holocaust—which includes plenty of gang rape, splattery violence, and yes, cannibalism—was presented as if it was real, causing all kinds of moral backlash. It wasn’t real. But the murder of a bunch of animals was—most notably, a sea turtle that’s graphically dismembered in a scene that reportedly brought star Perry Pirkanen to tears. While all this violence only further certified the film’s exploitative tastelessness and video-nasty street cred, it also gave the staged violence some extra voltage, further blurring the lines between what was real and what was provocation.
9. Manderlay (2005)
For Manderlay, the ill-fated second film (after Dogville) in Lars von Trier’s incomplete trilogy about America, the director didn’t wait for the press conference to stir up controversy. His story about a ’30s Alabama plantation where slavery persists, roughly 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, was certain to be provocation enough. But while shooting on a sound stage in Sweden—von Trier’s fear of flying has kept him off American shores—he had the characters slaughter a donkey for food onscreen. (It was widely reported at the time that John C. Reilly walked off the set in protest, though Variety later claimed he was never on the set to begin with, and that he left the film over the reduction of his role. ) The film’s producer, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, insisted that the donkey was old and sick, and the killing was done humanely, though he added jokingly, “We could probably kill six children for a film without anyone raising a fuss.” Apparently, von Trier isn’t the only Danish filmmaker who gives good press. But after all the drama, the scene was cut from the film.
10. Sátántangó (1994)
The centerpiece chapter of Béla Tarr’s 450-minute opus about the decline of a farming community in Communist Hungary follows a young girl who has her innocence and naïveté turned against her. Her older brother convinces her that if she buries her coins in the ground, a “moneystalk” will sprout, and they’ll all be rich; not long after she complies, he simply digs up the coins for himself. In response, the girl takes out her powerlessness on her cat, the only creature she can control. The subsequent cat torture is shot in one of Tarr’s signature long, unbroken takes, making the reality of what’s happening to the cat unmistakable. Yet Tarr not only insisted that the scene was shot under veterinarian supervision, but that the cat resided at his home outside Budapest, healthy and happy, for many years after the shoot.
11. Andrei Rublev (1971)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic masterpiece Andrei Rublev, a multi-part biography of an early-15th-century icon painter, climaxes with “The Raid,” an unsparing sequence depicting the Tatars storming the Russian city of Vladimir. The shock of witnessing the raid is so extreme that Rublev gives up painting and takes a vow of silence, and Tarkovsky makes certain the audience understands why. Two famous scenes stand out: One involves the burning of a cow (which was shielded by an asbestos coat and unharmed), and the other features a horse that falls from a flight of stairs and gets stabbed by a spear at the bottom. Though the horse was brought in from a slaughterhouse—and sent back afterward, dead, for commercial use—its demise was only simulated in that Tarkovsky shot it in the neck off-camera and gave it a shove; it was then speared after struggling to regain its footing after the fall. It’s a case study in the ethics of killing an animal that was already bound for the glue factory.
12. Pink Flamingos (1972)
It speaks volumes about the depravity depicted throughout John Waters’ Pink Flamingos that the most memorable animal-related scene in a film about a battle for the title of Filthiest Person Alive isn’t the one where a chicken is killed during a particularly brutal sex scene. The most infamous part, of course, is at the end of the movie, when Divine waits for a dog to move its bowels, then shoves the shit into her mouth. But an hour before, viewers are subjected to about a minute and a half of live chickens being used as sex toys by Crackers (Danny Mills), Divine’s fetishist son, who’s showing off for Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), his mother’s equally perverted voyeuristic traveling companion. Crackers’ “date,” Cookie (Cookie Mueller)—who’s gathering intel for Divine’s rivals—knows she’s getting herself involved with something nasty when she agrees to the rendezvous, but those poor chickens are blindsided when they’re literally smashed between two naked bodies. Not that Cookie enjoys herself—at the beginning of the scene, it’s difficult to tell who is squawking the loudest, and she screams “No!” before Crackers demands that she “hold these goddamn chickens,” whose blood eventually gets smeared all over her body. Though there are definitely two chickens in the scene, most making-of accounts hold that that only one actually died. Whatever the case, it’s kind of surprising that PETA hasn’t boycotted everything Waters has done since. Here’s Waters’ justification:
13. Flicka (2006)
Animals have intermittently been harmed in the course of making amazing movies, because the driven filmmaker at the helm was less concerned about their safety than about getting a particular shot. But animals have also been killed in the course of making polite treacle, just because the hard-working, uninspired people on the set got careless or had bad luck. It’s especially hard to resist the ironies involved when the treacle is of the family-friendly, animal-celebrating variety. The girl-and-her-horse movie Flicka, based on the novel that inspired the 1941 movie My Friend Flicka and a 1956 TV series, made headlines during its production when a horse was put down after breaking its leg during a running scene, and another broke its neck in a fall after escaping the man holding its tether. A highly publicized investigation concluded that the filmmakers were not at fault for the deaths, but seldom has the American Humane Association’s “no animals were harmed” movie-credits tag been more conspicuous in its absence.
14. Weekend (1967)
The final film of Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s hot streak, Weekend is full of speeches and Brechtian effects designed to make the audience aware how movies manipulate their thoughts and emotions through artifice. At some point, Godard must have decided that these techniques were too soft to get across the points he wanted to make, because he shuts up and gets real: Everything else stops while some people hoist up a pig and cut its throat. A goose also gives up the ghost in order to shake viewers out of their bourgeois complacency. Although the film is widely recognized as the director’s masterpiece, not everyone is convinced that this interlude of barnyard realism is among its high points. Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker, “Whatever our civilization is responsible for, that sow up there is his, not ours.”
15. Apocalypse Now (1979)
There are few sights more horrifying than a corpulent Marlon Brando in a black muumuu, but the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo at the climax of Apocalypse Now wins by an arterial squirt. The buffalo was already marked for ritual sacrifice by the indigenous tribe cast as the disciples of Brando’s gone-native Colonel Kurtz, and the argument was that it would have been hacked to death whether or not the cameras were rolling. But director Francis Ford Coppola is well aware of the shock value of watching a living creature fall apart like soft butter under the tribe’s blades, given that he uses it as a visual stand-in for what’s happening to the barely seen Brando as his assassin attacks with a similar machete.
16. Cockfighter (1974)
Monte Hellman didn’t shrink from the most difficult aspects of adapting Charles Willeford’s novel Cockfighter, whether that meant rendering star Warren Oates mute for almost the entire movie, or staging genuine to-the-death battles between unlucky roosters. The brutality of the supposed sport is examined in unflinching detail as the birds’ owners affix metal spurs to the cocks’ legs (which enables them to more easily strike lethal blows) and use threatening gestures to inflame their defensive instincts. Producer Roger Corman amped up the spectacle by demanding more fake blood and retitling the film Born To Kill, but the documentary-style footage is horrifying enough to need no enhancement.
17. The Rules Of The Game (1939)
Midway through Jean Renoir’s masterful comedy of manners, a group of well-to-do French socialites head into the woods surrounding a country estate near Sologne. While servants drum out rabbits and birds with sticks, the perched hunters take aim in a clearing. Renoir’s editing is fiercely paced (well, for 1939), giving vibrant, visceral life to the hunt. And he used real rabbits, which amped up the sense of realism even further. It also colors Renoir’s characterizations of the upper classes, dispassionately firing from behind thorny barricades as the help scrambles around aimlessly. In what is likely the film’s most famous shot, Renoir lingers on a rabbit twitching in its death throes. The grisly image not only foreshadows a murder later in the picture, it gives a sense of ethical gravity to an accepted hobby like sport shooting.
18. Oldboy (2003)
“I want to eat something alive,” Choi Min-sik tells his chef at a sushi bar. He’s just been abruptly ejected from the hotel suite where he spent 15 years in solitary captivity, with no idea who was holding him against his will or why, and he’s feeling dead inside, so he counteracts that sensation by devouring a living creature. Or maybe, given that his unknown captor has just been mocking him via cell phone, he wants to take his fury out on something tangible, and extend his suffering to a creature as helpless as he feels. Director Park Chan-wook captures a remarkable shot of the dead-eyed Choi biting the octopus to pieces as it struggles, tentacles pushing against his face and wrapping around his wrist as it dies. There’s no CGI or fakery involved—getting that shot meant the actor had to eat four live octopuses in a row. It was a problematic requirement for Choi, a practicing Buddhist; he explained in interviews that he had to pray for each octopus, and in the behind-the-scenes video below, he apologizes to one of them before a take. It’s a kind sentiment, but still a horrible way to die.
19. Dry Summer (1964)
Dry Summer’s sensationalized original British release title sums up its main human transgression: I Had My Brother’s Wife. In this Turkish drama, Greedy older brother Erol Tas cuts off access to the only spring in his rural area, damming it up on his property at the expense of the villagers downstream. When he shoots a protesting neighbor, Tas gets his younger brother to go to jail for the murder, and forcibly takes up with his bride. Winning the woman over takes a lot of terror, and no moment is as shockingly unexpected as Tas cutting off a chicken’s head and throwing the squawking fowl at her. It’s impossible to doubt the veracity of the one-shot decapitation, especially when the bird keeps running around in the background for the rest of the shot, rubbing in the cruelty.
20. Luck (2012)
When HBO announced its new horse-racing drama Luck in 2010, it garnered attention because of the big names behind and in front of the camera: David Milch, Michael Mann, Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte. But as filming of the series progressed, it got attention for less-welcome reasons, namely the deaths of two thoroughbreds that occurred during filming of the show’s racing sequences. HBO, as well as Milch and Mann, insisted that the show followed the most stringent safety standards, and that deaths like these happen at the racetrack in much higher percentages than was happening on the set of Luck. Then, during shooting for the second episode of the second season, a third horse got spooked while being walked by a trainer, and ended up fracturing its skull; it had to be put down. It was then that HBO, perhaps evaluating the low ratings and bad buzz, shut production down for good.
21. The Adventures Of Milo and Otis (1986/1989)
Originally released in Japan in 1986, The Adventures Of Milo And Otis depicted the best-buddies relationship between a kitten and a pug. (A U.S. release, three years later, tacked on some Dudley Moore narration.) But as cute as the film is, it’s been dogged by rumors of animal cruelty, with particular emphasis on a claim that 20 kittens were killed in the course of filming. Though the rumors were never substantiated, animal-rights activists point out that the film’s end credits don’t use the standard American Humane Association disclaimer (as it was filmed in Japan) but instead a more vague, “The animals used were filmed under strict supervision with the utmost care for their safety and well-being.” Regardless of offscreen abuse, a lot of what made it into the film meets any reasonable definition of animal cruelty. While some of the more harrowing scenes were cut for U.S. audiences, others remained, like the one in which a cat plunges more than a hundred feet off a cliff into the ocean. Other controversial scenes include Otis the pug fighting a bear and Milo floating helplessly down a river, then being attacked by a crab; they’re hardly heart-warming moments.